The Reporter
Issue 486, 25 November 2002
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Human Rights Act has little impact on the courts


The Human Rights Act has not had the anticipated impact on the legal system in England and Wales, a report commissioned by the Lord Chancellor has revealed. Head of law Professor Clive Walker carried out a survey at Crown, county and magistrates’ courts, with Professor John Raine of the University of Birmingham.

“The Act was widely expected to spark human rights challenges by defence lawyers, increasing trial times and the courts’ workload,” said Professor Walker. “In fact, such challenges have been extremely rare, and the Act has caused little disruption to normal court business.”

The main effect the researchers identified was a 15 minute average increase in trial time, caused by the requirement for magistrates to articulate reasons for all their decisions. While their conclusions may have been a relief for court managers, the report’s authors do say it may be ‘rather less reassuring for those interested in seeing more of a human rights culture developing in practice,’ adding that, ‘there is some distance to be travelled until the Human Rights Act achieves its full potential.’

“If the bill is to have any wider impact, steps need to be taken outside the courtroom,” said Professor Walker. “This could mean requiring solicitors and lawyers to undergo human rights training, as currently it is only the better resourced or specialist firms which are likely to have the ability to use the Act to mount legal challenges.

“The idea of a human rights commission for England and Wales is the subject of fierce debate, although one has been established in Northern Ireland and is proposed by the Scottish Executive. Although it may be on the statute books, without some kind of independent lead authority, the Human Rights Act risks having little meaning in practice.”


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