The History and development of Rights in the UK

When looking at the development of rights it is important to distinguish between  natural rights and civil rights.

Natural rights or Human Rights might be thought of as exciting in nature or coming from God. They can not be removed and do not need to be earned. Ideas of universal human equality such as in the Declaration of Independence 'All men a re created equal' is an expression of a  right which is natural to all humans.

Civil rights are based on a  social contract which guarantees certain rights such as the right to vote or join a party or express an opinion, in return for fulfilling certain obligations such as paying taxes and obeying the law. Citizens of a democracy enter into a contract with the state. Civil Rights' are legally protected freedoms, also known as civil liberties. In the UK these rights are now guaranteed by the 1998 Human Rights Act. They include the right to fair and equal treatment under the law, including the right to a fair trial and to peaceful possession of one's property, and to freedom from arbitrary detention freedom of expression in speech and writing

It is also broadly accepted that they might have to be limited in time of war or other major national emergency such as a pandemic.

 The idea of 'active citizenship' goes further,  and suggests that in return for these rights there is and expectation of participation , ie voting, volunteering or helping the community.


 'social rights', are broader and referred to as positive rights including the right to education, employment, health care and welfare provision. The UK has a long tradition of negative rights rather than positive rights- ie the right to education or welfare are positive rights but the right to be free to do anything unless it is strictly prohibited is negative. For example, people had a right to freedom of expression, subject to laws of defamation and blasphemy. 

The expression of right in the UK developed gradually over an extended period with positive and negative rights being formed in common law or statute laws. Some rights were protected by acts of Parliament, while others were derived from custom or common law. Until 1998 there was no single document that positively set out citizens' rights. Instead they were 'negative rights' - things people were entitled to do unless the law explicitly prohibited them. For example, people had a right to freedom of expression, subject to laws of defamation and blasphemy. Some rights were protected by acts of Parliament, while others were derived from custom or common law.

1215: the Magna Carta

This English Charter acknowledged for the first time that subjects of the crown had legal rights and that laws could apply to kings and queens too. The Magna Carta was also the first step in giving us the right to a trial by a jury of our peers.

1679: Habeas Corpus Act

Another crucial step towards the right to a fair trial, this law protected and extended the right of a detained person to go before a judge to determine whether the detention was legal.

1689: English Bill of Rights

The Bill was a landmark moment in the political history of Britain because it limited the powers of the monarch and set out the rights of Parliament. It included the freedom to petition the monarch (a step towards political protest rights); the freedom from cruel and unusual punishments (the forerunner to the ban on torture in our Human Rights Act) and the freedom from being fined without trial.

1948: Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the foundation for modern human rights. After the Second World War, the international community recognised the need for a collective expression of human rights. Adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, the declaration sets out a range of rights and freedoms to which everyone, everywhere in the world, is entitled.

1950: the European Convention on Human Rights

Members of the Council of Europe used the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to draw up this treaty to secure basic rights both for their own citizens and for other nationalities within their borders. The Convention was signed in Rome in 1950, ratified by the UK in 1951 and came into force in 1953. Unlike the Universal Declaration, the European Convention on Human Rights contains rights which can be relied on in a court of law.

1965: Race Relations Act

This was the first legislation in the UK to address racial discrimination. Although it was criticised because it only covered discrimination in specified public places, the act laid the foundations for more effective legislation. It also set up the Race Relations Board to consider complaints brought under the act.

1975: Sex Discrimination Act

The act made sex discrimination illegal in the areas of employment, education and the provision of goods, facilities and services.

1976: Race Relations Act

The Race Relations Act was established to prevent race discrimination. It made race discrimination unlawful in employment, training, housing, education and the provision of goods, facilities and services.

1995: Disability Discrimination Act

This Act represented the first far-reaching legislation on discrimination against disabled people. It covered key areas of life such as employment and training, education, goods, facilities and services, premises and transport.

1998: Human Rights Act

In force since October 2000, the Human Rights Act incorporated into domestic law the rights and liberties enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. People in the UK no longer had to take complaints about human rights breaches to the European Court in Strasbourg – British courts could now hear these cases.

·      The European Convention on Human Rights was drawn up in 1950, with the UK as one of its signatories, by the Council of Europe (not part of the European Union). It was very similar to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, drawn up in the aftermath of terrible violations of rights in the Second World War. The European Court of Human Rights was set up in Strasbourg to hear cases where people felt that their rights had been infringed in their own countries. UK citizens were allowed to appeal to the Court, but it was time-consuming and expensive.

·      In 1998 the New Labour government passed the Human Rights Act, which incorporated the Convention into UK law with effect from 2000. These rights — including the right to life, the prohibition of torture or degrading treatment, freedom from arbitrary arrest, the right to a fair trial and rights to privacy and family life— could now be defended in UK courts without having to go to Strasbourg.

The Equality Act (2010) brought together earlier pieces of legislation that had sought to outlaw discrimination and unfair treatment, such as the 1970 Equal Pay Act, the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and the 1976 Race Relations Act. It identified nine 'protected characteristics': age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. It made it illegal for public bodies, employers, service providers and other organisations and individuals to discriminate against people on any of these grounds, in the workplace or in wider society.

This Act may be use as evidence that rights are well protected in the UK and the existence of a 'rights culture' however you may argue that since it is not entrenched as a constitutional right it is always open to change by future governments. This however could be a strength since societal ideas about right are always changing as attitudes change and critics suggest that the Equalities Act has does not recognise developing attitudes to transgender identity which has prompted the Scottish government to pass the Gender Recognition Act. Removing the  requirement under the Gender Recognition Act 2004 for applications to have evidence of a diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

Case study The Gender Recognition Bill and Devolution 

Case study: Ruby Williams vs Urswick School

A pupil, Ruby, took her school to court after it enforced a uniform policy that banned Afro hair of excessive volume. When the school didn’t respond to the claim, the court issued a default judgment in her favour and the family reached a settlement. 

Case study:Mr M Bandura v Mr M Fernandez

March 2022. Michael Bandura, a butcher in a village shop, has been awarded more than £120,000 after he was replaced by a younger man. Bandura, 67, was ruled to have suffered age discrimination when his employer brought in a younger butcher after he went on temporary sick leave.

Protection of Freedoms Act 2012: offered citizens greater protection from the state by enhancing scrutiny of the security services, including MI5 and MI6.

Data Protection Act 2018: this is the UK government’s implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (commonly known as GDPR). All EU member states were obliged to implement the regulations. It placed strict controls on the handling and saving of all personal data by both government and private bodies including businesses, schools and local councils. It was intended to enhance citizens’ rights to personal privacyover their personal details.