What Are Rights, How Well Are They Protected in the UK, and How Will Brexit Affect This Protection?

This question can be broken down into three key components, which will make it easier to answer. One, ‘What Are Rights?’ Two, ‘How Are Rights Protected in the UK?’ and Three ‘How Will Brexit Affect This Protection?’

It seems that ‘What are rights?’ should be a simple answer, but what we see as societal rights and what the law sees as our rights are something that can be quite different.
In terms of the law, our rights are protected by the Human Rights Act 1998 (or simply, the HRA) which came into force in 2000. The key aim of this was to integrate the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law, which in turn makes it possible for breaches of the ECHR to be dealt with in the UK courts as if it was an issue of UK law. This would be instead of having to visit the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). This can be quite commonly confused with the European Court of Justice which is a body of the EU. The ECtHR is maintained by the Council of Europe, which again is separate from the EU and so when Brexit goes through, there aren’t any expected changes to this aspect of UK Courts – although Theresa May has stated she is unhappy with the HRA.

Now the basis of UK Human Rights is established it’s worth looking at who protects these. You could jump the gun and say ‘The Police do that’ – but they aren’t there to protect our rights, but instead to enforce the law (which in turn protects many of our rights indirectly.) The UK Courts system is made up of a range of institutes and at the top of all civil cases is the Supreme Court alongside all criminal cases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Supreme Court bases its findings on interpretations of UK law, the enforcement of the HRA, the dealings of conflicts between EU and UK law, and legal precedents. A key requirement for a case arriving at the supreme court is that it should be of key public interest and so this limits the court’s caseload. For most instances a lower court can deal with most issues, it is usually only very specific cases that require the supreme court.
How well rights are protected really comes down to the law enforcement bodies for criminal cases, and for civil cases how easy it is to access the court systems. In general, there are many checks and balances for what is fair and to be applied to someone. One key principle is the Rule of Law which all courts adhere to: No one is to be punished without a fair trial, no is above the law and should be subjected to the same justice, and constitutional issues are resolved from judges’ decisions rather than statute.

The imminent Brexit process will have some effect on the rights of citizens in the UK. Unless Theresa May, or any successor, withdraws the HRA, the ECHR is here to stay as it belongs to another institute than the EU. Because of the removal of the European Court of Justice, they will no longer have jurisdiction and so the Supreme Court will become the highest court, which will enhance the status and authority of the judges. A proportion of the current caseload to the Supreme Court is relating to EU law and as this will no longer have jurisdiction, or precedence due to the withdrawal from the Treaty of Rome, these issues won’t be discussed – although for some time they may still need to deal with conflicts because all EU law becomes UK statute under secondary legislation.