The Act for the Act campaign raises a number of useful points when considering the functions of pressure groups - particularly the extent to which they help to educate the public on issues that they might otherwise not be exposed to, and the extent to which they encourage political participation. Act for the Act hopes that their campaign will “Fill a gap by reaching out to all members of the public, many of whom… do not read the newspapers which print positive human rights stories.” In recent years, newspapers have given considerable coverage to controversial human rights cases, particular those that deal with the human rights of terrorists and convicted criminals. However, Act for the Act argues that the media has not given the same attention to the “everyday people and families who in times of great distress and difficulty suddenly needed the Human Rights Act.” As a result, donors and volunteers who support the campaign likely feel that their work benefits democracy, by encouraging a more balanced debate on what is a very significant issue. As the Government is planning to replace the Human Rights Act (1998) with a new British Bill of Rights, groups like Amnesty International and Liberty, who have also launched their own petitions in support of the HRA, will attempt to persuade the public to engage in the debate rather than leaving the issue to elected representatives.
However, it is likely that those who support the Government’s plans to introduce a new British Bill of Rights would take issue with the notion that the Act for the Act campaign is educating the public. Whilst the eye-catching posters may encourage viewers to research the HRA for themselves, they do not necessarily educate the public on the Act or provide the full context in which it was used in each case. It could also be argued that the campaign’s message, that human rights will be lost if the HRA itself is repealed, is misleading, because the British Bill of Rights is likely to contain many of the same rights, albeit with significant alterations
What does this case study tell us about the debate over codification
of the constitution?
Media campaigns in support of the Human Rights Act also highlight the extent to which rights have become codified in the UK. One of the arguments often put forward in favour of a codified constitution, is that it would help people to more easily understand how our political system works, and what rights they have as citizens. In the US, children can be easily taught about the Bill of Rights, which lists their constitutionally protected rights, such as the First Amendment right to free speech. However, until the passage of the Human Rights Act (1998), such a lesson would not have been so simple in the UK. Our uncodified constitution is not a single document that can be handed out for a class to read, but, instead, consists of a wide range of sources, including Acts of Parliament and common law. Many of the rights contained in the Human Rights Act (1998) already existed in the UK, protected by common law, but, as the case of Jan Sutton shows, having key rights codified into a single act makes it easier for citizens to understand and defend them.
However, the fact that pressure groups are now campaigning to ‘save’ the Human Rights Act is a reminder that while the law usefully codifies many of our rights, it does not entrench them. Amending the US Bill of Rights would require a supermajority of votes in Congress and the approval of three quarters of the states. Some campaigners argue that as long as the UK has an uncodified, flexible constitution, a government with a majority can always remove it.