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The Human Rights Act

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that every person in the world should be entitled to. They are based on core principles such as dignity, fairness, equality, respect and autonomy. Many of these rights help to protect everyone within the workplace as they have been incorporated into general employment law.

Key points

  • The Human Rights Act (HRA) gives greater effect to rights and freedoms guaranteed under the European Convention on Human rights
  • The European Convention on Human Rights Council is separate to the European Union
  • The European Court of Human Rights was set up to interpret and apply the Convention
  • Employment Tribunals are public bodies which will take account of the HRA when making their decision on human rights cases.

The European Court of Human Rights

The Human Rights Act covers everyone in the United Kingdom regardless of citizenship or immigration status. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is the international court set up to interpret and apply the Convention on Human Rights, it aims to apply and protect the civil and political rights of citizens. The Human Rights Act 1998 reflects the rights within the convention and became part of UK law so courts in the UK can hear human rights cases.

Some human rights are absolute such as the right to life or the right not to be tortured; they can never be altered or removed by governments in any circumstances. However, most human rights are not absolute for example; the governments may restrict the right to freedom of expression if someone is encouraging racial hatred. Other rights may be limited too, such as the right to liberty; this can be limited in some circumstances such as a conviction and a prison sentence.

Qualified rights such as the right of freedom of expression or the right to follow a particular religion or have a particular belief needs to be balanced. The balance is between the rights of the person, and the needs of the wider community or interest of the country. Any action taken under these rights must seek to achieve a legitimate aim for example the interests of national security or the prevention of disorder or crime and public safety.

The Conventions rights which are set out in the Human Rights Act include:

Article 2 - The right to life

Murder and manslaughter are illegal in the UK so domestic law is satisfied under this article, This right is absolute.

Article 3 - the right to freedom from torture

Everyone has the right not to be tortured or subjected to treatment or punishment that is inhuman. This right is absolute.

Article 4 - Prohibition of slavery and forced labour

Everyone has the absolute right not to be treated as a slave or made to perform forced or compulsory labour.

Forced or compulsory labour under the act does not include:

  1. any work required to be done as part of a prison sentence or community punishment
  2. any type of military service
  3. any service required in the case of an emergency which could threaten the life or well-being of a community
  4. any work or service which forms part of normal civic obligations such as fire services,

Under this article the authorities can take steps to protect people from being subjected to slavery etc, and can take action to prosecute those who subject others to slavery.

Article 5 - The right to personal freedom

No one should be deprived of their liberty even for a short period. However, this right is limited and does not apply where detention is lawful and it is for certain reasons, for example detention following conviction by a criminal court.

Article 6 - The right to a fair trial

Everyone is entitled to a fair trial and a public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial court / tribunal established by law. Anyone charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law.

Anyone charged with a criminal offence has minimum rights:

  1. to be informed promptly of the details of the accusation in a language which is easily understood
  2. to have adequate time and facilities to be able to prepare a defence
  3. to be able to defend in person or through legal assistance
  4. to be able to examine witnesses or have them examined
  5. to have the free use of an interpreter if they cannot understand or speak the language used in court

Decisions made by an employment tribunal must also follow the principles laid out the in the Convention.

Article 7 - No punishment without law

No one will be found guilty of a criminal offence which was not recorded as a criminal offence under national or international law at the time it was committed.

This article requires that the law must be clear in this respect so that people understand which offences are regarded as criminal offences.

Article 8 - The Right to Private and Family life

The concept of "private life" is broad but could include:

  • freedom to choose sexual identity
  • freedom to choose how to look and dress
  • freedom from intrusion by the media

This article places limits on the extent to which public authorities can do things which invade privacy of the body without permission, this could includes taking blood samples or performing body searches.

It could also raise issues for employers who monitor telephone calls or e-mails, or use CCTV for surveillance purpose. For further information on the use of CCTV and data protection issues please see the Information Commissioners Office website.

Article 9 - Freedom of thought, belief and religion

The Act protects the rights of people to have their own thoughts, beliefs and follow religions of their choice; it also includes the right to change their religion or belief at any time. Religion and belief is one of the protected characteristics within the Equality Act and it is unlawful to discriminate against workers because of their religion or belief or lack of religion or belief.

Article 10 - The right of freedom of expression

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression; however, this right may be subject to conditions or restrictions as prescribed by law which may be necessary in certain interests such as national security.

Article 11 - The right to freedom of assembly and association

Everyone has the right to freedom of association with others including the right to form and to join a trade union.

Article 12 - The right to marry

People have the right to marry according to their own national laws. From March 29 2014 same sex couples in the UK can marry in civil ceremonies or religious ceremonies if the religious organisations allow them to do so.

The Equality Act is another law which makes it unlawful for people to be discriminated against on the grounds of marriage and civil partnerships.

Article 14 Prohibition of discrimination

The Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination unless it can be justified on a wide range of grounds including sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority property, birth or other status, (for example include sexual orientation, marital status or trade union membership).

This means everyone has equal access to the same human rights no matter who they are.

Other laws protect employees from discrimination such as the Equality Act which makes it unlawful to discriminate against people at work because of:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.
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