Historical context of the Human Rights Act 1998

Not until the aftermath of the World War and its atrocities did issues concerning civil liberties and human rights once more gain worldwide attention. At that point, there was political resolve and popular support to have stronger monitoring and enforcement of minimum international standards of human rights.

The United Nations was formed in 1948 and one of its first acts was the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It established a fundamental set of standards for countries to follow. However, the Declaration was limited in that individuals could not enforce these rights against governments.

At the same time as the UN Declaration was being written, there was a movement in Europe to identify and institute a charter of fundamental rights and freedoms. The International Committee of the Movements for European Unity organised a congress in 1948 at which it resolved that a body representing different states be established with a remit to draft a charter of rights. This charter — based on the UN Declaration — was adopted as the European Convention on Human Rights by the Council of Europe in 1950 and was ratified by the UK in 1951.

However, petition by individuals to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg was not allowed by the UK Government until 1966. The granting of the right of individual petition subsequently resulted in Britain becoming one of the countries with most cases before the court. The increasing awareness of human rights in the UK, and the growth of a rights culture, may have been partly responsible for these large numbers. However, the fact that the UK did not have a Bill or Charter of Rights embedded in its constitution may also have resulted in more cases being taken to Europe because of the absence of relevant legislation to redress wrongs in this country. A movement grew through the 80s and 90s for the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law and the labour party included a promise to do this in their manifesto prior to the 1997 General Election. The outcome was a White Paper entitled Rights Brought Home — The Human Rights Bill and the passing of the Human Rights Act in 1998.