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Bill of rights lessons from the UK

By Fergal Davis - posted Monday, 24 December 2012

On 18 December the UK Commission on a Bill of Rights issued its report. Australians who advocate for a Bill of Rights should pay close attention to their findings.

Amongst other things, Australia and the UK share a head of state and a legal tradition. Central to that is a belief in the Sovereignty of Parliament: that is a belief that only the democratically elected parliaments should "make" law.

Of course, in interpreting law, courts often get very close to making law but in Australia and the UK such judicial acts are viewed with suspicion. This is particularly true in the area of human rights. Both states have struggled to develop a means of upholding human rights without unduly interfering with popularly elected parliaments.


In 1997 Tony Blair was swept to power in the UK on a tidal wave of good will and a promise of constitutional change. The mood was overwhelmingly positive, vibrant, youthful and the soundtrack to the campaign was D:Ream's "Things Can Only Get Better".

In terms of human rights protection Blair vowed to modernize. He promised to "Bring Rights Home". That seemed like a conscious parody of the English football anthem of 1996, "Three Lions" which had optimistically declared that football was "coming home".

Prior to 1998 UK citizens who felt that their rights had been violated had to exhaust all domestic legal remedies at which point they could appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. Blair proposed incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in UK Law meaning that citizens could seek to enforce the Convention rights in the UK Courts.

The UK had in fact greatly influenced the drafting of the ECHR in the immediate post World War II era. As a result the idea of "Bringing Rights Home" was to highlight that these rights were "British" in character – this was not something imposed by "Europe" rather it was a natural progression, a way of better securing British citizens rights.

The legislation providing for this was actually rather conservative. The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) allows UK courts to interpret law so that it is compatible with the Convention and where that is not possible they can issue a declaration of incompatibility. They cannot strike down or over rule legislation: this is not the US Supreme Court!

The HRA is substantially similar to the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. It is also similar to the proposals for a dialogue model of Human Rights Act recommended by the National Human Rights Consultation Report (The Brennan Report).


The HRA was lauded by some academics as "genius" because at the moment of greatest controversy – where an Act of parliament was found to be "incompatible" – the issue is returned to parliament to amend the law or to reaffirm their commitment to the rights abusing legislation.

Others derided this mechanism as weak, calling instead for a more robust strike down option.

The Bill of Rights Commission was established after the 2010 UK general election to review the need to supplement or replace the HRA. This was because the HRA failed to gain popular appeal. It may have brought rights home but the act is unloved: castigated as a "villains' charter".

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About the Author

Dr Fergal Davis is a Senior Lecturer and researcher in the Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow: Anti-Terror Laws and the Democratic Challenge Project at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law, UNSW. He has published broadly on matters of public law and anti-terrorism law in Australia, Ireland and the United Kingdom and he is an expert on trial by jury and non-jury trial in “emergency” cases. He lives in Sydney with his wife and three children.

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