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Ethics briefing
  1. Veronica English,
  2. Gillian Romano-Critchley,
  3. Ann Sommerville
  1. Medical Ethics Department, British Medical Association

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    Human Rights Act

    This month, October, the Human Rights Act 1998 comes into force, bringing the rights and freedoms enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights1 into domestic law. The act applies to the whole of the United Kingdom, although to some extent the convention has already been incorporated into the law in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Under 1998 legislation,2 neither the Scottish Parliament, nor the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, may act in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. It has been possible for some time, therefore, for the exercise of a function by one of those bodies to be challenged as not being within its powers, by virtue of that function being incompatible with the convention rights.

    Under the Human Rights Act, all action by “public authorities” must be compatible with the convention rights. National Health Service (NHS) trusts and health authorities are public authorities in this context and it is possible that individual NHS doctors will also fall within that definition. Whilst hospital doctors may appear to be more affected than general practitioners, who are independent contractors, other doctors may also be caught within the terms of the act. Acting in accordance with the Human Rights Act is also a matter of good practice. All doctors, therefore, need to be aware of their obligations and would be well advised to take account of the new legislation in making treatment decisions.

    One of the primary changes that will occur, in practical terms, is that, in addition to considering whether a proposed action would be lawful, it will be necessary also to consider whether someone's human rights are involved and, if so, whether it would be legitimate to interfere with them.

    It is envisaged that the introduction of the convention rights into domestic law will lead …

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