PracticeConsultingThe right law for business

The right law for business

The importance of the Human Rights Act which came into force on 2 October is undisputed. There has been no constitutional legislation like it since the Bill of Rights in 1688.

It makes rights protected since 1950 by the European Convention on Human Rights part of English law. Those rights range from the right to life to the right to protection of property.

All UK law must now be interpreted, so far as possible, compatibly with convention rights and it is unlawful for public authorities to act in a way which is incompatible with those rights. The new Act not only protects the rights of individuals but also has implications for commerce and industry.

There has been much speculation, sometimes extravagant, about the effect of the Act. Although the rights it incorporates into UK law were largely drafted by British lawyers, the public perception is of a further interference by ‘Europe’ in British life.

In fact, the concepts underlying the European Convention are familiar to British law. The rights are in large part recognised here; the new Act provides added emphasis to them.

Opinions differ on its likely effect on business. Will it introduce new burdens to the business community, as suggested by the Institute of Directors?

It seems more likely that it will provide an important additional remedy against the misuse of power by the government and industry regulators which increasingly govern the activities of businesses.

The business community is already familiar with judicial review of the procedures of decision makers. The Human Rights Act provides additional remedies, including monetary compensation, for wrongful acts by public authorities.

While the Act is primarily concerned with the activities of public authorities, the business community must familiarise itself with the standards underlying the Act, particularly for its relationships with employees, because they will affect private law.

However, good management practice and policies should be compatible with those standards.

There are areas of uncertainty, particularly as to how far the Act will influence private law rights and obligations and the extent to which organisations carrying out some public functions will be considered to be public authorities. Over the next few years, the British courts will provide guidance on these issues.

Above all, the Act should not be judged too quickly. When the fuss has died down, it will be seen for what it is: landmark legislation which entrenches fundamental human rights in Britain and promotes good governance.

  • Katherine Rimell is a partner at City law firm Theodore Goddard.

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