The Human RIghts Act Has Revolutionised the Way Judges Interpret Statutes. Discuss.

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“The Human Rights Act has revolutionised the way in which judges interpret statutes.”


1        The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA 1998) is described in its long title as “An Act to give further effect to rights and freedoms guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights.”[1] Its introduction created a huge impact on the English Legal system where previously, cases which involved breaches of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) could only be heard in the Strasbourg courts and often involved proceedings which were lengthy and costly.  With the introduction of the Act, the English courts could now hear cases involving these rights.  The focus of our research paper is on the impact that the HRA 1998 had on the way judges interpreted statues following its introduction.

Background to the Human Rights Act 1998

2        After the Second World War, the newly-established Council of Europe drew up the European Convention of Human Rights.  The ECHR was drafted in 1950 and came into force in 3rd September 1953.  All members of the council were expected to ratify the Convention as soon as possible.[2]  However, ratifying the Convention did not compel member states to incorporate Convention provisions into their domestic law, as was the case with the UK, which despite ratifying the Convention, for many years, refused to incorporate the Convention into English law.  Hence the UK courts did not recognise the Convention as part of its law.

3        Nevertheless, UK citizens could bring their cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg, France.  However, this involved proceedings which were costly and lengthy.  The lack of a written constitution and a Bill of Rights spelling out the rights that could be enjoyed by UK citizens demonstrated the difficulties they faced when seeking redress at the courts in relation to human rights as seen in light of the case of Malone v Metropolitan Police Commissioner (1979)[3].

4        The introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated the ECHR into UK legislation.  Now the Convention was directly applicable in the UK courts, dispensing the need for UK citizens to seek remedy at Strasbourg.  However, although the HRA 1998 does not oblige the English courts to follow the jurisprudence of the Strasbourg Courts, they should do so in the absence of special circumstances. [4]

Statutory Interpretation in the English Courts         

5        The modern approach to statutory interpretation is the purposive approach where judges interpret a statute according to its purpose as intended by Parliament.  Academics such as Sir Rupert Cross in his book Statutory Interpretation [5], wrote that when judges interpret statutes, they do so in a progressive manner - first considering the ordinary meaning of the words in the general context of the statute, then moving on to other possibilities if it leads to an absurd result.  

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6        Development in English case law also demonstrated a move from over-reliance on the literal approach to statutory interpretation to a more purposive one.[6]   According to Lord Griffiths in Pepper v Hart (1993) [7]

“The days have long passed when the court adopted a strict constructionist view of interpretation which required them to adopt the literal meaning of the language.  The courts now adopt a purposive approach which seeks to give effect to the purpose of the legislation...”

Following this, in the words of Lord Steyn in R (Quintavalle) v Secretary of State for Health (2003) [8]:

“The pendulum ...

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