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This House of Lords Library briefing focuses on the national bills of rights adopted in five countries: the US, Germany, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. It summarises the events that led to the drafting of the bill in each country, and provides an overview of their provisions and how they are enforced. It then briefly examines the debate had in Australia on whether to adopt a national bill of rights. Finally, it discusses a number of historical declarations of rights adopted in the United Kingdom, as well as recent proposals for a ‘British bill of rights’.

National Models

The bill of rights concept has been the subject of debate among a number of commentators. For instance, one has noted that the phrase ‘bill of rights’ has been used at “various times, in different contexts by different people”, and that “even today there is no standard definition”. Nevertheless, several have used the term ‘bill of rights’ to describe an instrument which gives legal effect to a broad set of fundamental human or civil rights, and defines their status within the national legal order. Documents with these characteristics have also been called ‘Charters of Rights’, or as in the UK, ‘Human Rights Act’.

In 2008, the UK Joint Committee on Human Rights published the report, A Bill of Rights for the UK?, in which it examined the question of whether Britain should adopt a bill of rights. The Committee identified four possible models for a national bill of rights:

  • Judicial power to strike down legislation for breach of bill of rights
  • Judicial power to strike down but subject to parliamentary override
  • Judicial obligation to interpret statute compatibly with the bill of rights and power to declare incompatible if not possible, giving opportunity for legislative response
  • Judicial obligation to interpret legislation consistently with the rights and freedoms contained in the bill of rights 

Proposals for a British Bill of Rights

Since its enactment in 1998, there have been calls for a British bill of rights to either replace or build on the UK Human Rights Act 1998. Most recently, the Conservative Party 2015 general election manifesto included a commitment to abolish the Human Rights Act and introduce a British bill of rights to “break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK”. In evidence given to the House of Lords Constitution Committee in December 2015, the Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, stated that the Government intended to publish a consultation in 2016 on how it hoped to “revise the Human Rights Act and the Bill of Rights”.

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