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The European Convention on Human Rights
The incorporation of the ECHR into UK law

1. themes and issues

2. activities and implications

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This document has been prepared by Sarah McMurchie, a solicitor. It has been prepared for the British Council as a reference source to assist with Human Rights issues.

The Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, normally referred to as the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), was drafted by the Council of Europe and adopted in 1950, and was ratified by the UK Government in 1951. The ECHR sets out, in broad terms, a series of Articles guaranteeing basic human rights to the citizens of Europe.

The Labour Government pledged, in their election manifesto of 1997, to increase individual rights by incorporating the ECHR into UK law. This has led to the Human Rights Act 1998, which was given the Royal Assent on the 9 November 1998. It is anticipated that the Act will come into force around October 2000.

The Act achieves its purpose, not as anticipated by the New Zealand model which is interpretative, nor by the Canadian model which 'overrides' existing legislation. The UK model is unique and preserves a subtle compromise between incorporating the European Convention rights and retaining Parliamentary sovereignty.

It does this by creating a general requirement that all legislation must be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the Convention. It also requires all public authorities to act in compliance with the Convention unless prevented from doing so by statue.

The Act does not make the Convention directly enforceable, but the fact that the courts are obliged to interpret status to confirm with the Convention will ensure that the rights of the Convention are applied.

The Act does not allow the Convention to override primary legislation, even if there is incompatibility, thus retaining the sovereignty of Parliament. If incompatibility occurs, then the higher courts, on appeal, may issue a 'declaration of incompatibility', which will then be fast-tracked to Parliament for amendment.

Click on the links to the left to read more about the issues surrounding the ECHR.

Back to the Human rights index page

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