Applying Human Rights Law

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In order for civil servants to understand the impact of their work on human rights, it is important to be aware of how human rights law is applied in practice. While the law creates a duty to respect, protect and fulfil human rights it does not mean all human rights must be guaranteed at all times. Most rights can be limited under certain circumstances. Such interferences with rights must be justifiable and meet the legal criteria applied to each type of right.

The rights in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and Human Rights Act (HRA) can be grouped into different categories.

  • Absolute

These rights can never be interfered with or restricted by the state under any circumstances. There are no circumstances where this type of treatment of people can be justified. It’s never okay to allow people to carry out forced or compulsory labour.

  • Freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

  • Freedom from slavery or servitude.

  • Limited

These rights can be limited in specified circumstances for example conviction in court and subsequent jail term or under mental health legislation.

  • Right to liberty

  • Qualified

The criteria that must be met to justify interference with the right are set out in the law. Any interference with a qualified right must have a legal basis, be necessary in a democratic society and be proportionate.

  • Right to private and family life

  • Proportionality

A proportionate action is one that is reasonable and not excessive in the circumstances. The principle of proportionality is central to how human rights law operates. It helps to ensure that any interferences with a right is kept to a minimum, for example, government restrictions on the right to assembly and association in order to maintain public order.