Case study Act for the Act

In  2015, a new pressure group called Act for the Act was established to raise awareness about the importance of the Human Rights Act (1998). The group is opposed to the Conservative Government’s plans to replace the Act with a new British Bill of Rights. In the months following the election, the group began a media campaign that told the stories of citizens who believe that the Act has been essential in upholding their human rights. The group hopes that these examples will balance the more controversial human rights cases that often attract media attention. Funded by donations and contributions from crowdfunding, the group used its resources to film case study videos, run a poster campaign, and create a letter petition addressed to the Justice Secretary Michael Gove. 

The group believes that those who want to scrap the Act “wrongly believe that the Human Rights Act is for the likes of terrorists, illegal immigrants and criminals”, and they wish to demonstrate “how important the Human Rights Act is to ordinary people, across the country.” The group is now focussed on obtaining further signatures for their letter to Michael Gove, which has currently been signed by over 3,300 people. The videos, posters, and the letter itself are all available to view on the group’s website. 

One of the stories is told by Mark Neary, who says that he relied upon the Human Rights Act to get his son Steven, who has autism and learning difficulties, returned to his care, after Hillingdon Council placed him in a ‘positive behaviour unit’, which he argues Steven did not want, and did not need. Steven had been voluntarily put into temporary care in December 2009 while Mark was ill, but local authorities then decided to place him into a specialist care unit, where he remained for a year while Mark campaigned to have him returned to his care. Mark took legal action, and, in the case Hillingdon LBC v Neary (2011), the High Court ruled that the local authority had breached Steven's Article 5 right to liberty and security and Article 8 right to respect for private and family life, ruling the authorisation for Steven to be placed in the positive behaviour unit to be unlawful. 

Another of the stories is told by Jan Sutton, who, having been diagnosed with MS, had to remain in bed almost all day as her carers were only contracted by the council to visit for short periods of time to maintain her basic levels of care. When the care contractors were suddenly unable to continue providing care, Jan began to temporarily self-fund her care, and was able to spend longer periods out of bed. Jan says that, during this time, she undertook research on the Human Rights Act and felt empowered by the legal rights protected within it. Jan challenged the council on the level of care she had been receiving before self-funding and won the case, resulting in improved care and an out-of-court settlement. As a result, the number of hours of care she receives per week has been increased from 50 to 100, which she says has allowed her to live a much fuller life.

Do Act for Act help to balance the tabloid hostility to the HRA

Conservative supporting newspapers consistently attack the Human Rights Act

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.

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.” 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.

For two weeks in October 2015, the posters were used around the country on billboards, the London Underground, and on buses in Manchester and Gove’s home constituency of Surrey Heath, telling the stories of lives impacted by the Human Rights Act (HRA).

 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.

The Human Rights Reform Bill received its first reading in 2022 but has not progressed.The influential Joint Committee on Human Rights said a planned Bill of Rights Act would restrict certain protections "the government finds inconvenient". Liz Truss's government  shelved plans for Human Right Bill with was design designed to give ministers the power to ignore human rights rulings from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). 

 Act for the Act now longer campaign since the pressure to repeal or replace the HRA declined with the dominance of Brexit, however the issue still remains live in the Conservative Party.

In September 2023 Suella Braverman  reiterated her wish to leave what she called the “politicised” European court of human rights (ECHR) and refused to rule out the mass tagging of asylum seekers.