The Human Rights Act (HRA)

Overview for social care

This introduction to human rights has been developed to assist in promoting dignity in social care.

The Human Rights Act (HRA) came into force in October 2000. It enables individuals to enforce 16 of the fundamental rights and freedoms contained in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in British courts. This makes Parliament and public bodies more accountable to UK citizens through the courts. The fundamental rights include rights that impact directly on service provision in the health and social care sector.

Quite simply we cannot hope to improve people's health and wellbeing if we are not ensuring that their human rights are respected. Human rights are not just about avoiding getting it wrong, they are an opportunity to make real improvements to people's lives.

Rosie Winterton, Minister of State for Health Services (Equality and Human Rights, 2007)

Human rights underpin our social care legislation and some of them are particularly relevant, including:

  • Article 3: Freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment
  • Article 5: Right to liberty and security
  • Article 8: Respect for your private and family life

Not all rights are absolute – meaning they can be overruled in certain circumstances – and frequently practitioners are required to balance competing rights.

The origins of the HRA 2000

The primary purposes of the HRA are to enable the rights set out in the ECHR 1950 to be enforced through the UK courts and to provide a check on the activities of Parliament and public bodies. The most significant force behind the ECHR was the Second World War and its aftermath. The ECHR was designed to prevent a repeat of the rise of fascism and totalitarianism and to restrict the oppression of individual rights in the name of the state and in the name of the majority.

As Lord Justice Sedley put it in a lecture to the Legal Action Group:

The Convention is a child of its time – the post-war years when the states of western Europe tried to set their faces both against the devastation of the recent past and against any new form of totalitarianism. So the Convention says many important things about due process, personal integrity and free speech and ideas; but nothing directly about the most elementary of all human needs, a right to enough food and shelter to keep body and soul together.

Sedley (2002)