15 years ago the Human Rights Act (HRA) entered into force in the UK. But are we celebrating this landmark piece of legislation that has meant everyone in the country has protection against unlawful actions by the state? Sadly not. Instead, we are facing its possible abolition.
The HRA enshrined in UK law rights set out by the European Convention on Human Rights (itself spearheaded by Britain and signed in 1951), such as the rights to life, to a fair trial and to freedom of expression. Yet, it is commonly seen as a 'criminals' charter', protecting certain unpopular groups, such as migrants and terrorists. In reality, human rights protect us all - young, old, rich, poor, healthy, and sick. They are the basic rights and freedoms to which we are all entitled, regardless of where we live, our age, gender, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation. Inevitably it is often the more vulnerable and marginalised who need to rely on the law to ensure their rights are upheld.
We see this every day at Coram Children's Legal Centre (CCLC), where solicitors work day in day out with children who rely on the Human Rights Act to ensure they are protected from harm. We represent refugees fleeing persecution and violence, victims of trafficking, children who face destitution and homelessness and children who face being taken into care, or are already in care.
The Act protects children like 17-year-old Saira, who came to the UK from Pakistan when she was five years old and ended up in care after suffering abuse. With ambitions to become a nurse, she wants to start university but is prevented from doing so by her immigration status. Thanks to the HRA, CCLC can argue, based on the life she has built in the UK, that Saira should be granted permission to stay in this country under Article 8 of the European Convention.
It protects children like Hannah, who was 16 and looked after by a local authority. She and her baby were in a mother and baby foster care placement but after Hannah made a decision to leave the placement, the local authority moved the baby to another foster carer and refused to reunite mother and child. CCLC used human rights arguments in the family court proceedings started by the local authority. Hannah and her baby were reunited on the evening after the first hearing.
The Human Rights Act has been used to challenge public authorities where they have failed to protect children against abuse in foster care. It has ensured that children are not wrongly denied contact with their parents, and has protected children against physical punishment and the use of pain techniques in detention. Seminal cases based on a child's right to a private and family life have helped ensure that the interests of children are properly considered in decisions made by public bodies and that they are not merely seen as 'appendages' to their parents.
Children's rights are human rights. The global commitment to protecting children is defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), an international treaty which has been ratified by every country in the world except the United States and Somalia. However, the UNCRC has still not been directly incorporated into UK law, so a child cannot take a case to court under that treaty. Instead, children rely on the Human Rights Act, which provides a direct method of protecting them.
The UK government plans to introduce a 'British Bill of Rights'. The name implies this will be an exercise in 'bringing rights home', in advancing the freedoms and protections we hold dear. Proposals to date have not, however, addressed fears that new legislation could see the government pick and choose when human rights apply, and to whom; that it will make rights something to be earned, or something which can be removed entirely from certain groups; that children could end up separated from their parents because of their immigration status, or will end up with less protection if they, or their parents, break the law.
From trafficked children to children who have experienced domestic abuse or violence at school, the Human Rights Act has helped protect their rights. At a time when concerns about child welfare and the protection of children from abuse have been at the forefront of national debate, it is imperative that children's rights are strengthened in the UK, not weakened, to ensure that all children have the fullest set of rights to keep them safe. Nothing less will do.