How effectively are Human Rights and Civil Liberties protected in the UK?

Britain is a liberal democracy. As part of this, it is expected that civil rights and civil liberties will be strongly protected. However, how well this is done is a matter of debate that will be considered in this article.

What is meant by human rights and civil liberties?

Whilst they are similar, human rights and civil liberties are distinct terms:

Human Rights – Human Rights are rights that exist for all humans, wherever they may be. They are both inalienable (they can’t be taken away) and universal (they exist everywhere). This is a modern concept that is best encapsulated in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

Examples of Human Rights: Right to Life, Right to an Education, Right to a Nationality.

Civil Liberties – Civil Liberties are rights and freedoms that exist for citizens of a particular state. They are underpinned by the laws of that state, rather than by a universal doctrine. In particular, they exist to protect citizens from any tyranny by the state itself.

Examples of Civil Liberties: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Press, Habeas Corpus.

What is the difference between individual and collective rights?

Individual rights are those that belong to an individual person. Collective rights (often called group rights) and those that belong to a group in society, or to society as a whole. There is often a tension that arises between the protection of individual rights and group rights. Some examples of this tension are below:

The ‘Snoopers Charter’ was passed under Theresa May’s Government.

Privacy – Individuals in the UK have a right to a private life. This is enshrined in the Human Rights Act under Article 8. However, there may be times that the Government feels it is necessary to infringe upon any absolute right to privacy in order to protect the wider community. For example, the Investigatory Powers Act (2016), often called the Snoopers Charter, mandates that Internet Service Providers keep customers internet records for 12 months. The logs can be requested by law enforcement from the ISP under a warrant. This means that the privacy of all individuals is being limited in order to provide the ability for the Police and Intelligence Services to keep everyone safe.

Freedom of Expression – In Britain people have freedom of expression, including that relating to politics and religion. This is a fundamental individual right. However, the state has placed limits on that freedom. For example, racist hate speech is criminalised. This is because state adjudges that the right of people from all backgrounds to be treated respectfully is more important than the rights of an individual to espouse bigoted views. Another example is over freedom of religion. An issue where this often brings conflict is over LGBT+ rights. Some people of religious faith believe that homosexual relationships are sinful. Freedom of expression allows them to hold this view and to express it if they so wish. However, this individual right can become complex if by exercising it a person would be infringing on the collective rights of LGBT+ people to be treated with dignity. This issue has even made it to the UK Supreme Court in the case of Lee v. Ashers Baking Company (2018).

Gay marriage 'Bert and Ernie' cake bakery found guilty of discrimination in  Northern Ireland | The Independent | The Independent
A cake similar to the one Mr Lee requested.

In 2014 Gareth Lee, a volunteer for an LGBT organisation in Belfast, entered a shop owned by Asher Baking company and ordered a custom made cake. He had been invited to attend an event marking anti-homophobia week and wanted to take a cake with him. Mr Lee had previously bought cakes from the store without issue. Mr Lee asked for a cake with the a picture of “Bert and Ernie” and the headline “Support Gay Marriage”. The order was taken and payment was made. However, subsequently, the proprietor phoned Mr Lee and said his order could not be fulfilled as the owners were Christians and would not print the slogan due to their religious beliefs. Lee subsequently took the owners to court claiming he has suffered discrimination based on his sexual orientation and political opinion. The bakery argued that they did not refuse to bake the cake because Mr Lee may have been gay, but because they did not support the political message he had requested was printed on it. They argued that therefore they were acting inline with their own freedom of expression. The case went through a number of court stages and ended up in the UK Supreme Court. The court ruled in favour of the bakery. They noted that the message supporting gay marriage was distinguishable from someone being homosexual (as, for example, many heterosexuals support gay marriage). There was no evidence that the owners knew Lee was homosexual (though they may have assumed that) and therefore discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation could not be found to have taken place. On the issue of political beliefs, the Supreme Court found that as Mr Lee was not the subject of the discrimination. They found that whilst the bakers could not refuse to serve Mr Lee because of his own political beliefs on same-sex marriage, they could not be obliged to take an action (bake a cake with a message) with which they profoundly disagreed due to their own political beliefs. This is an example of a prominent case that tried to find the balance individual rights and collective rights.

How are rights meant to be protected in the UK?

There are a mechanisms ways through which rights are meant to be protected in the UK.

Common Law – One such mechanism is through Common Law. Britain has a strong Common Law tradition. Common Law is law made through judicial precedent and much of it has developed over centuries. In Britain there is a presumption to personal freedom and that something is lawful unless it is specifically barred. Such rights are known as negative rights. Over centuries judges have adjudicated on such rights and built up common law. Some examples of this include:

R v Simms – In 2000 a blanket ban was placed on prisoners speaking to journalists. Simms and another prisoner bought a case against the government arguing that this infringed upon their common law rights to freedom of speech. The case went to the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords who ruled with the prisoners.

Entick v. Carrington – In November 1762 four of the King’s staff broke into the house of the writer John Entick. They were acting on behalf of Lord Halifax, the Secretary of State for the Northern Department. They were searching for papers that would prove Entick’s involvement in a seditious movement. Entick subsequently sued the King’s staff for Trespass. The King’s staff said they were acting under a warrant given to them by Lord Halifax. However, Entick argued that Halifax had no right to issue the warrant. The court found in Entick’s favour. In his judgement Lord Camden famously said:

” By the laws of England, every invasion of private property, be it ever so minute, is a trespass…The justification is submitted to the judges, who are to look into the books; and if such a justification can be maintained by the text of the statute law, or by the principles of common law. If no excuse can be found or produced, the silence of the books is an authority against the defendant, and the plaintiff must have judgment”

Statute Law – At times Parliament has legislated to extend the rights and liberties of individuals through Acts of Parliament. Famous examples of this include:

– Magna Carta (1215) – Magna Carta is considered to be one of the key building blocks of the UK constitution and its agreement established a number of rights that are still protected in law today.

– Representation of the Peoples Act (1928) – An Act of Parliament that allowed all women, regardless of the age or wealth, to vote at a General Election.

– Human Rights Act (1998) – An Act of Parliament that enshrined the provisions of the European Convention of Human Rights in British law.

– The Equality Act (2010) – An act that created nine protected characteristics which would give their holders special protections on law.

Representative Democracy – As a representative democracy it is expected that Parliament will act to protect the rights and liberties of people in Britain. Not only is this the morally right thing to do, it is also the self-interested thing to. If a Parliament does not stand up for the rights of citizens it is likely to find itself being punished for that inaction at the next General Election.

AV Dicey first codified the Rule of Law.

The Rule of Law – Britain operates according to the principle of the Rule of Law. This is a fundamental principle of the UK constitution. The Rule of Law was codified by the Victorian constitutional scholar AV Dicey who said that it had three key facets:

  1. The Government should be limited by established laws.
  2. Everyone is equal under the law.
  3. The law must be administered by an independent judiciary.

What are the arguments that rights are well protected in the UK?

  1. There is a common law tradition and a belief in negative rights

In Britain anything is legal that is not otherwise illegal. This is an absolute foundation of Britain’s legal system which is based on the notion of negative rights.

“The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings, capable of laws, where there is no law there is no freedom.”

John Locke – Two Treatises of Government

In the case of Entick v Carrington Lord Camden gave the famous words “If it is law, it will be found in our books. If it not to be found there, it is not law”. By this he meant that if something is not proscribed in statute or in common law it is by default legal.

This also extends into the criminal justice system. If someone is accused of a crime the onus is not on them to prove their innocence but on the state to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is fundamental to civil liberties because the hurdle required in the legal system for the state to deprive someone of their liberty (through a prison sentence, for example) is extremely high.

2. The UK is subject to international agreements that force it to follow Human Rights law

The European Court of Human Rights is based in Strasbourg.

Britain is an active member of the global community. As part of this, Britain is a member of the institutions and organisations that seek to proactively protect rights. The best example of this is that Britain was a founding member of the Council of Europe and a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). As such, Britain agrees to be politically bound by the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg. Whilst there have been famous occasions where Britain has ignored the rulings of the ECtHR, such as Hirst v. United Kingdom, it is also important to note that the vast majority of cases in which Britain have been found to have breached the ECHR have led to positive action from the British Government to remedy the situation. A prominent example is that of the Abu Qatada case. In 2012 the ECHR blocked the deportation of extremist cleric Abu Qatada to Jordan due to fears he would be tortured. Whilst the judgement was criticised by politicians, it was respected. Britain consequently worked to secure a bilateral treaty with Jordan that would satisfy the ECHR that the deportation was appropriate.

In addition, there are other international agreements through which Britain agrees to uphold certain rights. These include international treaties such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, UN Convention against Torture, UN Convention on the rights of the disabled.

3. The British judiciary is independent and neutral

The British judiciary is renowned for its neutrality and independence. This is encouraged through a number of factors:

  • Security of Tenure – A member of the Senior Judiciary can only be removed by a vote in both Houses of Parliament. This means that judges don’t have to worry about their next job, and pleasing anyone to get it!
  • Guaranteed Salaries – The salaries of judges are not set by politicians. This means that judges don’t have to impress MPs to receive a pay rise!
  • Contempt of Court – It is a criminal offence for politicians to speak out about a criminal case during its proceedings. This helps to stop cases from becoming politicized.
  • The Judicial Appointments Commission – The new appointments system helps to promote the best person for the job and avoid cronyism.
  • Reputation – Judges rely on their reputation for impartiality for their future advancement and success. Most judges are unwilling to compromise this by becoming politicized.

In addition, there are other factors that enhance the independence of then judiciary:

– Since the Constitutional Reform Act (2005) the fusion of powers that entangled the judiciary, executive and legislature has been removed. The Supreme Court is now housed in a separate building given it a greater sense of political independence.

– Judges often practice judicial restraint, being careful not only overturn case law if there is a clear necessity. This can be seen in R (Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice when an appeal to challenge the law on euthanasia was rejected by the judiciary.

– There is an expectation that Government Ministers respect the decisions of judges and do not publicly question them. There is also an expectation that Ministers do not comment on the likely outcome of a potential legal case. This convention is usually followed.

– The creation of the Judicial Appointments Commission means that political influence over judicial appointments is now very limited.

All these factors help to establish the independence of the judiciary and this independence is essential in their role of protecting rights and liberties because the judiciary is not going to kowtow to the Executive of Parliament.

4. There are statute laws that protect rights

Parliament has regularly enacted statute laws that protect rights and has done so for nearly a thousand years:

Magna Carta (1215) – The signing of Magna Carta in 1215 is often considered to be the foundation stone of civil liberties in the UK. The agreement limited the power of the monarch and ensured a number of rights to British citizens. The most significant of these is Habeas Corpus – the right for an individual not to be detained unless lawful grounds are given for that detention. This right exists in Common Law and also in statute. For example, a Police Constable can only arrest some under the Police, Crime and Evidence Act 1984 (commonly known as PACE) if the arrest is because there is a reasonable belief that a person has been, is, or is about to be, involved in a criminal offence. In addition, any arrest must be necessary and proportionate.

Human Rights Act (1998) – The Human Rights Act (1998) codified the ECHR into British Law. This was important as it means that those same rights can be adjudicated in British courts. Under the Act the courts can issue a declaration of incompatibility if they believe the government is acting contrary to the Human Rights Act and can request that amendments are made to legislation. The passage of the Human Rights Act has helped develop what is often called a ‘rights culture’ in the UK. Some of the rights protected under the Human Rights Act are:

Article 1 – The Right to Life

Article 5 – The Right to a fair trial

Article 7 – The right to respect for private and family life

Article 8 – Freedom of though, conscience and religion

Freedom of Information Act (2000) – The Freedom of Information Act was passed in 2000 and came into force in 2005. The Act allows individuals to seek access to government documents. This is an important right for citizens as it allows them to hold the government and public institutions accountable for their actions.

Data Protection Act (1998/2018) – The Data Protection Act was passed in 1998 and extended in 2018. This gives individuals ownership of their personal data, even if it is being processed by someone else. This means that an individual has the right to request a copy of their data from an organisation who is processing it and also has a right to request that their data is deleted.

Equality Act (2010) – The Equality Act was passed in 2010 as one of the last great reforms by the New Labour Government. The Equality Act creates nine protected characteristics which people are protected from discrimination against. These characteristics are: Age, Sex, Sexual Orientation, Gender Reassignment, Race, Gypsies and Travellers – Race Discrimination, Religion of Belief, Marriage of Civil Partnership, Disability.

5. Citizens can challenge their rights in court

If a British citizen believes that their rights have been infringed they can challenge the public authority that they believe has infringed them in court. This is a process where an individual seeks to prove that a public authority has acted ultra vires (beyond its legal power of authority). A famous case of this was in Ahmed v Treasury in 2009. Mohammed Jabar Ahmed was suspected of being involved in terrorist activities. However, he had not been charged with any offence. Nonetheless, he was subjected to an asset-freezing order due to the suspicions held against him. He challenged this in court and the Supreme Court ruled that the asset-freezing order was unlawful as Ahmed had not been charged and could therefore not challenge the ruling in criminal proceedings. In this case the Supreme Court was upholding the presumption of innocence that is essential to the Rule of Law.

The case of the ‘Belmarsh 9’ was extremely significant.

Another very famous and important example is A. v Home Secretary. In this case nine individuals were being held indefinitely and without charge at Belmarsh Prison. This was only possible as they were non-British nationals who were suspected of links to terrorism. The men challenged this in court and the case went the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords (then the UK’s supreme court). The Law Lords judged that their detention was incompatible with the provisions of the ECHR and their detention was therefore illegitimate. This was a significant ruling that showed the willingness of the judiciary to protect the rights individuals even when national security was at stake.

John Hirst took the British Government to the ECHR over his right to vote whilst a serving prisoner.

In addition, despite the Human Rights Act (1998) and individual can still choose to challenge the British Government in the European Court of Human Rights. This is what happened in the case of Hirst v. United Kingdom. John Hirst was a prisoner serving a significant sentence after being found guilty manslaughter. He said that his human rights were being abridged due to the fact that he was not allowed to vote whilst serving a prison sentence. He tried to challenge this in the UK courts but the High Court dismissed his case. Hirst subsequently took his case to the ECtHR who ruled that a blanket ban on prisoners voting was contrary to the ECHR.

In this particular case the ECHR recommendation was not implemented by Parliament, however, in most cases they are.

6. Parliament will step in to block legislation that may infringe rights

90 Day Detention was Blair’s first defeat as Prime Minister.

As part of a representative democracy Parliament and parliamentarians know they play a role in protecting civil liberties. As such, they are reticent to pass legislation that may impinge on the fundamental rights of citizens. A famous example of them acting to protect civil liberties occurred in 2005. Following the 7/7 Bombings in London the Labour government of Tony Blair responded to requests by the police to extend the time period for which a person could be detained without charge. This was made part of the Terrorism Bill. Blair’s government wanted police to be able to hold terror suspects for 90 days without charge, this is despite the normal period for which a person can be held without charge being 24 hours (extending to 96 hours if permission is granted by a judge). As such, 90 day detention was seen as a significant challenge to the right of Habeas Corpus. After a long debate the House of Commons voted by 322-291 against 90 day detention, including 49 Labour MPs rebelling against their own Prime Minister. Instead, the Commons backed a 28-day detention period. This was Tony Blair’s first ever defeat in the House of Commons as Prime Minister and is a good example of Parliament standing up for the civil liberties of citizens.

7. Britain has a rights culture

Since the passage of the Human Rights Act (1998) Britain has developed what can be described as a ‘rights culture’. This means that the respect for human rights has become deeply ingrained into public consciousness. Legislation such as the Human Rights Act (1998) and the Equality Act (2010) are studied in school as part of Personal, Social and Health Education and so people are familiar with many of their rights when they enter adulthood. The protection of civil rights is a consensus issue in Politics – with parties across the political spectrum claiming to be the guardians of those rights.

What are the arguments that rights are not well protected in the UK?

  1. Britain can suffer from an elective dictatorship where infringements on rights can be imposed by a government

In Britain there is often a situation in which there can be said to be an elective dictatorship. This is caused by a number of factors (including the FPTP voting system) but in essence it means that when a government is in power it can govern without significant scrutiny. The average government majority since 1945 has been 57.5 seats and there have been mammoth majorities such as the 179 and 166 achieved by Tony Blair. Strong majority governments mean that realistically statute laws can be passed that may infringe civil rights and liberties without much scrutiny from the House of Commons. Further, whilst the House of Lords may make objections, the primacy of the House of Commons means that they are unlikely to be able to prevent these measures from becoming law. Recently the Conservative Government of Boris Johnson has passed a number of statute laws that have arguably infringed upon the fundamental rights of citizens:

Huge ‘kill the bill’ protests took place across the UK over the Police, Crime and Sentencing Act (2022).

Police, Crime and Sentencing Act (2022) – This bill was extremely controversial due to a number of provisions that critics say have curtailed fundamental liberties. These include:

  • Police will be able to set noise limits on peaceful protests.
  • Police will be able to set a start and end time on peaceful protests.
  • There will be further limits on peaceful protesting around the Palace of Westminster.
  • The Police will have the powers to ‘stop and search’ someone at a protest even if they have no reasonable suspicion of wrong-doing.

The House of Lords made 14 amendments to the bill in January. However, these were subsequently rejected by the House of Commons. As such this is a good example of a strong government passing measures that arguably curtail civil liberties.

Elections Act (2022) – The Elections Act of 2022 has made it mandatory for voters to show Photo ID at General Elections. The Conservative Government said that this was required to protect the integrity of elections. However, after the 2019 General Election there were just four convictions for electoral fraud. Critics of the law note that the people who will be most affected by this measure are those from poorer backgrounds who are unlikely to vote for the Conservatives anyway. It is seen by many to be an attempt to limit a most basic civil liberty – the right to vote and choose your government.

Rwanda Migrants Plan – Recently Home Secretary Priti Patel revealed the British Government had reached a deal to with Rwanda to send asylum seekers to that country to be processed. This has been widely criticised and may be unlawful under international law.

2. Common law can be overridden by Statute

The Coronavirus Act (2020) placed remarkable limits on civil liberties.

In the UK Parliament is sovereign. This means that, as AV Dicey put it, Parliament can ‘make or unmake any law’. This power means it can override common law rights. A recent example of this happening was during the COVID-19 pandemic through the passage of the Coronavirus Act (2020). This Act of Parliament saw the Government able to carry out the most significant restriction of civil liberties since World War Two and the Defence of the Realm Act. It allowed the government to put limits on the most basic civil liberties such as the the freedom to assemble, the freedom of movement and the freedom to peacefully protest. Notably, the Act was passed ‘on the nod’ – meaning it was not even voted on. In this instance the Government was making a decision to place the collective rights of citizens to be protected from COVID-19 over ancient individual rights that are protected under Common Law.

3. The protection of rights is not entrenched into the Constitution

Unlike in a codified constitution like that of the US the protection of rights is not entrenched into the constitution. In America, for example, Freedom of Expression is protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution. It would take a supermajority of Congress and/or the fifty states to amend this provision. However, in Britain there is no fundamental law. All that would be required to amend the statutory protection of rights would be a simple majority in Parliament. Indeed, the current Conservative Party had the following in its manifesto in 2019:

” We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government.”

At present, the Conservative Government is carrying out a detailed consultation into creating a UK Bill of Rights and repealing the Human Rights Act (1998). As the government with a majority in Parliament, they would inevitably have the most significant say in what would be in this new UK Bill or Rights and would have the power, should they wish, to limit certain civil liberties.

4. Governments may place a greater emphasis on collective rights than individual rights

It is extremely tempting for governments to put collective rights above those of individual rights. This can often be seen and there are a number of examples where this is the case:

Snoopers Charter – In 2016 the Investigatory Powers Act was passed by Parliament. This is commonly referred to as the Snooper’s Charter. This Act gives the Police and Intelligence Services extensive powers to monitor the electronic records of British citizens. Among other things the Act:

  • Allows the British intelligence services and the police to carry out targeted interceptions of electronic communications.
  • Requires Internet Service Providers to maintain the internet connection records of users for 12 months.
  • Allows the Police and Intelligence Services to see these internet connection records with a warrant and without the citizen concerned being aware.
  • Allows the Police and intelligence agencies to hack into computers or devices when they need to access the data.

Whilst the government may see these things as essential to being able to keep the public safe, many citizens see them as an excessive infringement on their right to privacy. A huge number of public bodies have access to the data of private citizens, albeit with safeguards built into the bill to prevent misuse. In this case the government has forced individuals to sacrifice some of their rights to privacy in order to allow the intelligence services and the police to better safeguard the safety of the public as a whole.

Facial Recognition – Another prominent example is the roll-out of facial recognition technology by public authorities. This is technology that can detect someone automatically through facial recognition. It can be used, for example, at a football match to scan the crowd and search for anyone with a banning order or who is wanted by the Police. However, such technologies may also be seen to interfere with the rights of law-abiding citizens who are also having their data processed. In August 2020 the Pressure Group Liberty won a court of appeal ruling against the way that South Wales Police were deploying facial recognition technology.

5. Certain groups are still not fully protected by equality legislation

Whilst many groups have seen their equality protections grow there are still groups that find themselves outside of these protections. For example, whilst some traveller communities are protected as an ethnic group under the Equality Act, others are not. For example, New Age Travellers are not protected under the Act despite facing significant discrimination due to their lifestyle.

What examples are there of Pressure Groups that seek to protect rights and liberties?

There are a number of Pressure Groups that actively campaign on the issue of upholding civil rights and civil liberties in the UK. Two examples of such groups are Liberty and Amnesty International.





Liberty was founded in 1934 as the National Council for Civil Liberties. It had a number of prominent members including H.G Wells and Clement Attlee. The organization was re-branded Liberty in 1989.


Liberty is a peaceful and law-abiding pressure group. They seek to influence public opinion through demonstrations and campaigns. Liberty bring legal challenges against the government (judicial review) when they feel that civil liberties have been infringed but also seek to work with the government proactively to avoid civil liberties being infringed in the first place. One of the tactics that Liberty has become famous for is its use of petitions to demonstrate the strength of public support for the issues it is campaigning on.

Key Campaigns

Gay Rights – In 1984 Liberty acted on behalf of Gay’s the word bookshop who had their stock confiscated due to accusations it was a pornographer, not a bookshop. The charges were dropped in 1986.

Miner’s Strike – During the Miner’s Strike Liberty campaigned on behalf of Miner’s who were stopped from picketing outside their home regions, thereby limiting their freedom of movement.

Iraqi Detainees in the Gulf War – During the first Gul War Liberty campaigned for the release of 100 Iraq nationals who were detained in Britain without charge.

A. v Home Secretary – Liberty intervened in A. v Home Secretary offering support to the Belmarsh 9.

Katherine Gun – Katherine Gun was a British translator who claimed that the US National Security Agency had sought the help of the British Government in illegal surveillance against the UN. Gun was charged under the Official Secrets Act but with the support of Liberty the charges against her were dropped.

42 Day Detention – Liberty led a campaign that sought to stop the government from increasing detention without charge for terror suspects from 28 days to 42 days. The plan was dropped after it was defeated in the House of Lords in 2008 and this was a major success for Liberty.

Gary McKinnon may have been sentenced to 70 years imprisonment in the US

Gary McKinnon – In 2002 UK citizen Gary McKinnon was charged in the United States for computer hacking. He had broken into the US military and NASA systems. McKinnon, who suffers from Asberger’s syndrome, claimed he was looking for evidence of UFOs. He would have faced up to 70 years in jail in the US but with the support of Liberty he took the case to the ECHR to say he should be tried in the UK and not extradited to the US – as it was in the UK that the alleged offences were committed. In the end the Director of Public Prosecutions (then Keir Starmer) announced he would not face trial in the UK .

Human Rights Act – Following the 2015 Conservative General Election pledge to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights Liberty have campaigned to retain the HRA.

Investigatory Powers Act – Liberty has launched a number of legal challenged to the Investigatory Powers Act (Snoopers Charter). They were successful in challenging parts of the Act which the High Court found was incompatible with EU Law.

Equal Pensions for Same-Sex Couples – In 2017 Liberty dealt with a loophole under the Equality Act which allowed same-sex couples to be exempted from pension privileges. In a legal case led by Liberty the Supreme Court found that this was unlawful.

Amnesty International




Amnesty International is headquartered in the UK but is an international organization. It was founded in 1961 with the aim to bring greater public awareness to human rights abuses and to put pressure on government’s to end them. The organisation won the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize.


Traditionally Amnesty International relied on mass letter writing campaigns. However, increasingly, they have embraced the digital age and organise public petitions which sometimes have multiple millions of signatures. They also hold public demonstrations to bring attention to human rights abuses around the world. In addition, they carry out research through which they hope to inform and influence government policy.

Howard League for Penal Reform




The Howard League for Reform is the world’s oldest penal reform pressure group in the world. It campaigns for the civil rights of those who are incarcerated.


The group does detailed research into the impact of government policy and holds meetings with the government in power.

Key Campaigns

Capital Punishment – The Howard League played a leading role in campaigning for the end of capital punishment in the UK. Capital Punishment ended in 1969.

Probation Service – The Howard League campaigned for the foundation of a national Probation Service. This was founded in

Books for Prisoners – In 2014 a Books for Prisoners campaign was set up to counter the decision by Chris Grayling, then Justice Secretary, to end the restrictions placed on sending books to prisoners. It was supported by a huge number of literary figures including: Carol Ann Duffy, Alan Bennet, Nick Hornby and Philip Pullman. This issue went to the Hight Court where it was criticised and the government reversed the decision.

Article Summary

Britain has a very strong tradition of protecting rights. This common law tradition dates back centuries and proceeds modern statutes such as the Human Rights Act (1998). Historically judges have tended to vigorously protect civil liberties and civil rights. However, it cannot be forgotten that Britain has parliamentary sovereignty. This means that parliament has no legal impediment from stopping it impinging on civil liberties. Instead, the impediment is political, a government that does not act to preserve civil liberties is likely to see itself out of power in short order. However, the elective dictatorship that can exist in Britain might see a government acting in a way that chips away at civil liberties without necessarily losing power because of it.

Key Terms

A v Home Secretary – A Human Rights case that was heard before the Law Lords in 2004. The case ruled that the indefinite detention of nine terrorism suspects at Belmarsh Prison was unlawful.

Ahmed v Treasury – A significant early Supreme Court case involving the freezing of suspected terror supporter’s assets. The judgement was not welcome by the Government and Parliament quickly legislated to make such actions legal. It is therefore an excellent example of both judicial review and parliamentary sovereignty.

Civil Liberties – The basic rights granted to citizens of a country. In a liberal democracy these rights that are considered undeniable, such as freedom of speech.

Collective (Group) Rights – Rights that belong to a section of society or to society as a whole. For example, society has a right to be protected from violence within it.

Common Law – This law is made by taking into account the previous conclusions of judges. This creates a judicial precedent for judges to use in the future. This is often referred to as judge made law. Importantly, it ‘fills the gaps’ left by Statute Law.

Equality Act (2010) – An Act of Parliament that creates nine protected characteristics and makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone based on those characteristics.

European Convention of Human Rights – An international treaty to protect and enforce fundamental Human Rights in Europe. It was signed in 1950. In 1998 it was codified into UK Law in the Human Rights Act.

European Court of Human Rights – The Court based in Strasbourg which is responsible for ensuring that the European Convention of Human Rights is carried out in countries that have signed up to it.

Human Rights – Rights that belong to all humans and are inalienable and universal.

Human Rights Act (1998) – The UK Act of Parliament that placed the ECHR into British law.

Individual Rights – Rights that belong to an individual. This might be, for example, freedom of expression.

Investigatory Powers Act (2016) – Often referred to as the Snoopers Charter, this 2017 Act gives the government greater powers over electronic surveillance of citizens.

Lee v. Ashers Baking Company (2018) – A Supreme Court case that dealt with issues of freedom of expression and discrimination.

Liberal Democracy – A system of government that not only includes democratic elections, but also over liberal elements such as the rule of law and civil liberties.

Magna Carta – This agreement established the principle that the power of the monarch was limited and that citizens had fundamental rights. Three parts of the Magna Carta are still in law today, though not through the Act itself.

Negative Rights – Rights that exist naturally unless there is some other law to negate them.

Statute Law – Laws created via Act of Parliament. They are considered the superior form of law.

The Rule of Law – The concept that states there is equality before the law and that no one can be punished without trial. It is a key principle of the UK constitution.

Ultra Vires – A finding that the government or a government body has acted beyond its power or authority.

2 thoughts on “How effectively are Human Rights and Civil Liberties protected in the UK?


    With the Abu Qatada case, could it be argued that the British Govt deporting him protects the British people as he was dangerous, hence they protected our rights?
    But then again your breaking the HRA as he claimed he’d get tortured and they still attempted to deport him for many years.
    Lastly could it be argued that this case demonstrates the failing of the HRA, as it took them 8 years to deport a man who endangered the public and spent millions doing so. Showing how the HRA can be taken advantage of.
    Which is the strongest argument and are they all valid?

    1. politicsteaching

      Yes – the key here is the conflict between collective rights and individual rights. The HRA is focused towards individual rights that all humans have and collective rights are therefore harder to enforce.


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