Taking action about human rights
Public authorities like a local authority or the NHS must respect your human rights. If you think a public authority has breached your human rights, you may be able to take action under the Human Rights Act 1998.
You won’t necessarily have to go to court, it may be enough to discuss your problem with the person or organisation who's breached your rights. If your problem isn't resolved informally you can make a formal complaint.
Read this page to find out more about what you can do if your human rights have been breached.
Before you take action
When deciding what action to take about a human rights issue, you’ll need to think about what you’re trying to achieve. For example, do you want financial compensation, an apology or things put right? You will also need to think about how quickly you need to get a result.
It’s often best to try to resolve your problem informally first. It may stop the problem getting worse and avoid the expense of taking legal action. You should, however, be aware that there are strict time limits for taking legal action. It’s therefore best to act as early as possible.
Identifying a human rights issue
If you’ve been treated badly or unfairly, you'll need to identify what human right or rights have been breached. For example, if you’ve been refused life-saving treatment this could be a breach of your right to life under article 2. Or if your family are not allowed to visit you in hospital this could be a breach of your right to respect for your private and family life under article 8.
Remember only public authorities have a duty not to breach your rights under the Human Rights Act.
A public authority may breach your human rights by:
- doing something which interferes with your rights, or
- failing to act - for example, by not protecting you if your life is in danger.
What action can you take?
Make an informal complaint
It’s often best to try to resolve your problem informally first. It may stop the problem getting worse and avoid the expense of taking legal action. You can try talking to the person or people involved or you can contact their manager.
If you make an informal complaint, it’s a good idea to include the following things in your conversation:
- a short description of what happened
- the names and job titles of the people involved
- the date and time of the incident
- a description of how the incident affected you
- what you want the organisation to do now - for example, apologise or review a decision already taken or offer compensation
- when you expect a reply.
It’s best to keep a record of the conversation and make a note of the date. It’s also a good idea to follow up the conversation with a letter recording what was discussed.
Making a formal complaint
If the problem isn’t resolved informally, you can make a formal complaint. If there's a complaints procedure, you need to follow this. Most public authorities have their own complaints procedures. If there’s no complaints procedure you should complain in writing.
If you make a formal written complaint you should include the following things:
- explain what happened - include any relevant dates and times, the names of anyone involved
- say how the actions of the public authority have affected you - for example, that it’s made you feel distressed or that it’s affected your health
- say what you want to happen as a result of the complaint - for example, an apology or a review of the decision that’s been taken
- include your name and contact details.
If an adviser is helping you with the complaint and you want them to advocate on your behalf, you should include their name and contact details in your written complaint. You would also need to attach a letter of authorisation signed by you to show you want the adviser to act for you.
Keep a copy of the letter and write down when you sent it. It's best to send the letter by recorded delivery, or you can ask for a free certficate of posting.
Taking your complaint further
If your problem hasn't been resolved or you're unhappy with the public authority's response to your complaint, you can contact other organisations like a regulator or an ombudsman who can look at your complaint.
You should be aware that it may take some time for your complaint to be resolved. When you make a complaint to an ombudsman it doesn't stop time running for taking legal action. If you want to take legal action you need to make sure you're not running out of time as there are strict time limits for going to court. If this is the case it may be best to take your case to court directly.
Taking legal action
If you decide to take court action you should get advice from an experienced adviser - for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau.
You can take court action against a public authority if they’ve breached your human rights. You can also rely on your human rights in cases brought against you.
- The Human Rights Act 1998
- What rights are protected under the Human Rights Act?
- Who's breaching your human rights?
Other useful information
Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission
You can find information about human rights on the website of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission at