JCHR Press Notice 03-04 No. 14

Session 2003-04                                                    3 March 2004

Press Release on Publication

Seventh Report

The Meaning of "Public Authority" under the Human Rights Act

The Seventh Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of Session 2003-2004, on The Meaning of "Public Authority" under the Human Rights Act, is published today, Wednesday 3 March 2003, as House of Lords Paper 39/House of Commons Paper 382.

This Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) questions whether the Human Rights Act is providing effective protection for people whose rights are breached by private and voluntary sector bodies that provide "public" functions and services.  The Human Rights Act requires all "public authorities" to comply with human rights standards set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.  The Committee notes that this was originally intended to be a wide category, including private organisations where they were active in the public sector.  However, "public authority" has been interpreted relatively narrowly by the courts in a series of cases, limiting the range of organisations that must comply with Convention rights.  This has raised concerns that people who rely on publicly-funded private and voluntary sector organisations to provide services in areas such as housing or social care, may not be able to rely on protection of their human rights under the Human Rights Act. 

Significant practical consequences flow from these decisions of the courts.  The Committee notes that bodies outside the public sector are extensively involved in the provision of public services, often to people who are particularly vulnerable to ill-treatment.  The extent of these organisations' responsibilities under the Human Rights Act is therefore profoundly significant to both the providers and the recipients of those services.

The report expresses concern that the current interpretation of the law may undermine the comprehensive human rights protection which the Human Rights Act was designed to deliver, and call into question the capacity of the Act fully to "bring rights home" to the people of the United Kingdom. The Committee concludes that the current state of the law on the meaning of public authority is unsatisfactory, unfair, and inconsistent with the intention of Parliament, which foresaw a wider application of rights under the Human Rights Act.

The report considers options for closing the gap in protection which has been opened, and for reducing the potential for further loss of protection.  It concludes that amendment of the Human Rights Act would be undesirable and could lead to further difficulties in practice.  Contractual provisions could be used to give some human rights protection, and the government should give urgent attention to providing central guidance on this.  Nevertheless the Committee remains unconvinced that the inclusion of contractual terms for human rights protection could provide fully comprehensive, consistent and equal human rights protection for the recipients of public services. 

The report concludes that the solution to the problem of the gap in protection lies with the courts, which should be adopting a generous and flexible approach to deciding which activities should fall within the terms of the Act.  The Committee rejects the approach which links the extent of protection with the institutional relationship between service providers and the State.  The Committee urges the government to intervene in cases where it can press the case for a broad, functional interpretation of the meaning of public authority under the Human Rights Act.  

The Report will be available on the internet at the address below from approximately 3pm on the day of publication.