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Taking legal action about human rights

This advice applies to Wales

In the UK, human rights are protected by the Human Rights Act 1998. If a public authority breaches your human rights, you may be able to take action under the Human Rights Act in the UK courts.

Read this page to find out more about taking court action about human rights.

Before taking action

Taking court action can be a long and stressful process. It can also be expensive. It’s important to keep in mind that if you lose the case in court, you may have to pay the other side's legal costs which could be high.

If you’re thinking about taking court action, you should get advice from an experienced adviser - for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau.

Who’s breaching your human rights?

Remember you can only take action under the Human Rights Act against a public authority.

The Human Rights Act says only the victim of a human rights breach can take legal action under the Act. You’re likely to be a victim if you’re personally affected by the decision or act you’re complaining about, or if you’re likely to be personally affected by it.

What are the time limits?

You must make your application to the court within a year of the act you’re complaining about. But there may be stricter time limits depending on the court action you take. For example, if you make an application for judicial review, the time limit is three months.

The courts can allow an application outside the one year time limit if they think it’s fair to do so. But you would have to show you have a very good reason for bringing your case outside the time limit.

What kind of court action can you take?

If you want to bring a case under the Human Rights Act you need to decide which court you should make your application to. This will depend on what your complaint is about and the remedy you want the court to order.

For example, if it’s an employment dispute you would normally take your case to an employment tribunal.

Remedies

The remedies you can get depend on the type of court action you’re taking.

The most common remedies include:

  • financial compensation or damages
  • an order that the public authority should do something - this is called an injunction.

A court will not automatically order financial compensation if it decides your human rights have been breached. This depends on whether you’ve suffered a loss that the court thinks you should be compensated for.

Judicial Review

When you want to take court action about a decision by a public authority, you will usually make an application for judicial review unless there’s another better way of challenging the decision.

What’s judicial review?

Judicial review is a special procedure you can use to challenge decisions made by public authorities. Judicial review applications must be made in the High Court.

Judicial review can only be used where there are no better ways of challenging a decision - for example, if you don’t have a separate right of appeal against the decision.

For example, if you want to challenge a decision about welfare benefits you normally have the right to appeal to a tribunal. You should therefore raise the human rights issue in front of the tribunal rather than making an application for judicial review.

Try to resolve the problem without going to court first

Before you take court action, you should always try to resolve your problem in other ways first - for example, by talking to the public authority or by using mediation. This is called alternative dispute resolution. If you don’t do this, it may affect the outcome of your case.

However, you should be aware that there are very strict time limits for making an application for judicial review. If you’re running out of time, it may be necessary to issue your claim at court directly. You could then ask the court for more time to consider alternative dispute resolution.

What are the time limits?

The application must be made as soon as possible and in any case within three months of the act you're complaining about.

Who can make an application for judicial review?

You can only make an application for judicial review if you have sufficient interest. If you make an application because your human rights have been breached you have sufficient interest if you’re a victim of the human rights breach.

What remedies can the court order?

When you make an application for judicial review the court will look at how the decision was made rather than if it was the right decision.

If the court thinks the way the decision was made is wrong - for example, because it breaches your human rights - it can cancel the decision and tell the public authority to make the decision again. This is called a quashing order. The court can also give you financial compensation if you’ve suffered a loss.

Other things the court can do include:  

  • order the public authority to do something - this is called a mandatory order
  • order the public authority not to do something - this is called a prohibiting order.

Using human rights in actions brought against you

You can also use the Human Rights Act in court if a public authority takes legal action against you.  

Example

You’re a social housing tenant and the local authority wants to evict you because of rent arrears. They take you to court to get a possession order. You may be able to rely on your article 8 rights which protect your right to private and family life as a defence to the proceedings against you.

Further information

When you have decided that you want to take legal action about a human rights issue, you may need further help about using a solicitor and find out if you can get help with your legal costs.

Next steps

Other useful information

Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS)

The EASS helpline can provide advice and information on human rights and discrimination issues.

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

You can find useful information about discrimination on the EHRC website at

Public Law Project

For more information about how to make an application for judicial review see the Public Law project website at

Liberty

For more information and advice on the different rights protected under the Human Rights Act go to Liberty’s Your Rights website at

British Institute of Human Rights

You can also find more information about human rights in Your human rights guides from the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) at

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