Intended for healthcare professionals


Why the human rights act matters to doctors

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: (Published 30 September 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:780

Definitions of informed consent and negligence may be challenged, and lack of resources will not excuse poor care

  1. Barbara Hewson, barrister at law (
  1. Littman Chambers, 12 Gray's Inn Square, Gray's Inn London WC1R 5JP

    The Human Rights Act 1998, which comes into full force on 2 October, is a momentous development in the constitutional history of the United Kingdom, and doctors need to take it seriously.1 The act revolutionises the British idea of freedom, which is a somewhat precarious notion that you can do anything you want, provided it is not illegal. This idea of freedom is rather different from the doctrine of positive rights developed in other countries. The notion of the citizen entitled to a list of positive rights has often been the product of revolutionary movements—for example in France the United States and the Republic of Ireland.

    The problem is that parliament can legislate at any time to restrict individual freedoms. It frequently does—for example, the author Oscar Wilde's imprisonment for gross indecency, over a century ago, is a case in point. And in an age as susceptible to moral panic as ours, whether about the age of consent or paedophilia, the risks posed by ill thought out and repressive legislation are painfully apparent.

    What does the act do? It incorporates most (though not all) of the European Convention on Human Rights. This convention was adopted by the countries of Europe as part of a collective response to the horrors of …

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