Human Rights Act 1998 - a brief introduction
The implementation of the Human Rights Act from 2 October 2000 will affect everyone involved in a
“public function”. There are clear implications for school governors, although it is difficult at this stage to
assess the full impact accurately simply because there is no English case law against which to base it.
Nevertheless, there are some simple preparations which every school and Board of Governors can do
now to help establish a human rights culture and avoid legal challenge.
What does it mean? The Human Rights Act contains a clear statement of everyone’s
rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. They will now be
enforceable in UK courts.
What does the Act do? From 2 October 2000 it will be unlawful for a public authority
to act in a way which infringes a person’s rights and freedoms under the Convention.
Both school staff and pupils will be protected by the Convention. If their rights and
freedoms are infringed, they can take the public authority to court. If the court
upholds a challenge, it can award whatever remedy (including compensation) as it
considers just and appropriate.
What is a public authority? Central and local government (DfEE and LEAs) are
obvious public authorities. The definition under the Act also includes bodies “whose
functions are of a public nature”. Many Governing bodies and schools will therefore be
covered by this classification, and independent schools might also find some of their
How does the Act relate to Governing bodies? For those involved in education
there are two Articles which have particular relevance:
Article 2 of Protocol 1 which states: No person shall be denied the right to education.
In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to
teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and
teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions; and
Article 14 which prohibits any person being denied their convention rights because of
any type of discrimination.
Other Articles which might impact are:
Article 6, the “right to a fair trial”, could be invoked in challenges from pupils or staff
against the disciplinary or exclusion procedures of schools;
Article 8, the “right to respect for private and family life” could feature in challenges
involving the appointment or dismissal of staff, or random searches of students;
Article 9 the “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” could be used in
challenges involving time off for staff or students who wish to observe religious
Article 10 the right to “freedom of expression” could feature in challenges around
uniforms or dress codes, or whistle blowing.
Does this mean more work for schools and their governors? Yes, but this need
not be onerous. For example, you will already take into account the existing
Employment Laws, such as the Sex Discrimination Act, when dealing with staffing
issues and your reasons for appointments, appraisals and promotions should be
backed by rational assessment.
This Act will also mean that you should clarify many of the procedures you already
perform. For example, where you already have guidelines on admissions and
exclusions you should try to identify any areas which could - even unintentionally - be
depriving an individual of his or her rights. And any action which involves
punishments and disciplines should be clearly and chronologically reported so that an
independent observer would agree that the outcome was “proportionate” to the nature
of the incident.
What now? Both DfEE and independent legal advisers are looking at other areas for
potential impact from the Act - issues such as bullying for example - and further
guidance will be issued, although it is difficult at this stage for guidance to predict with
certainty all the implications. However, you may need to review now your literature,
policies and procedures relating both to the employment of staff and pupil admissions
to reduce the risk of problems.
If you are in need of urgent advice you should contact the Clerk to the Governors or
your LEA immediately.
Further details, including useful guidance documents, can be found electronically:
on the Home Office web site http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/hract
on the European Court of Human Rights web site http://www.echr.coe.int/
on the Schools A - Z which will be available via the School Leadership and
Management site www.vtc.ngfl.gov.uk
There are also several publications which might help, including:
Judge Over Your Shoulder (currently being revised to account for the HRA)
Acting on Rights: A Guide to the HRA 1998, Local Government Association 1999 (can
be purchased from IDA Publication Sales 0171 296 6600 quoting LGA reference
You may also wish to consider attending one of the local training sessions on the HRA
which many legal companies, LEAs and the LGA are organising.