Key messages

The guidance reviewed in this resource covers a wide range of issues and different areas of the public sector. However, there are some common and recurring themes that will be applicable to everyone.

Positive obligations

The Human Rights Act means that all public authorities have an obligation to ensure that people's rights are respected in all that they do.

The Human Rights Act is not just about preventing public authorities from taking certain actions. It also requires them to take proactive steps to prevent breaches of human rights from happening in the first place, no matter who or what is causing the harm.

Human rights as an aid to decision making

Human rights can establish a set of shared standards that apply to all. This can be of particular value in underpinning a range of policy and practice developments, and in safeguarding vital services, particularly for the most vulnerable groups.

Human rights principles can strengthen decision-making at both corporate and service levels and help to prevent service failure. Human rights can provide an important 'check and balance' - helping to determine proportionate action, especially where the interests of different parties conflict.

Human rights provide a practical framework for making decisions in difficult situations. For example:

  • to ensure that staff are protected from violent or abusive patients while also having regard to the interests of the patient.
  • to ensure that the rights of the individual are balanced against those of others (including staff) and the interests of the community.
  • to understand where resources may need to be targeted in the future by identifying people whose perspectives might not previously have been considered.
  • to demonstrate to people using services that the decision making process is objective.


The principle of proportionality is at the heart of a human rights framework. This can be summarised as 'not using a sledgehammer to crack a nut'. It ensures that any restriction of a person's human rights is kept to a minimum.

Proportionality is an important mechanism for:

  • ensuring that the infringement of rights is kept to a minimum and is always reasonable
  • balancing competing interests, e.g. the rights of individuals with those of service users, staff or the wider community.

To decide whether restrictions on a right are proportionate, there are a number of key questions that need to be asked:

  • Are there reasons for the restriction?
  • Is there a less restrictive alternative that could apply?
  • Have I considered the rights of those affected?

Balancing rights

A Human Rights approach can also support managers to balance different people's rights and to know when one person's rights can be restricted to protect those of others.

For example, restrictions must:

  • have a clear legal basis that staff and service users can know about and understand
  • have a legitimate aim - that is, an aim set out in the text of the HRA itself
  • be necessary 'in a democratic society' - usually to protect the rights of others
  • be proportionate - going only as far as necessary to achieve the objective, and
  • not discriminate against a particular group of people.

Assessing and managing risk

Human rights can be used to ensure that risk management practice is lawful, balances the interests of all those involved, and is proportionate - that is, appropriate and not excessive in the circumstances.

Risk assessment is not something that should be 'done to' someone: the person being assessed should be as thoroughly involved in the process as possible.

An emphasis on proactive rather than reactive strategies is more likely to be consistent with human rights.

Human rights can be infringed when public authorities are excessively risk averse as well as when they fail to act to prevent risk.

A human rights approach to risk means always taking the least restrictive option available.

User and public involvement

The inclusion of service users, is an essential part of a human rights based approach

Meaningful involvement and participation of service users in decisions about their lives is particularly important.

Improving the quality of public services

Human rights can be used - both by staff and service users - to challenge outmoded practices or services, which are designed around the needs of service providers rather than users.

Embedding human rights principles can have benefits in terms of staff morale and enthusiasm - re-connecting staff with core public service values.

Equality and good relations

Human rights address the question of what it means to treat people with dignity and respect. Viewing equality issues through a human rights lens can help to shift the emphasis from negative compliance to positive cultural change. For example this can help to:

  • identify the positive steps that regulators and service providers might need to take in order to ensure that no service user is discriminated against as a result of disability.
  • provide an inclusive framework in which different cultural and religious values can co-exist.
  • aid understanding of concepts that are central to citizenship education: how national and international agreements are made, how conflicts arise and are resolved, how stereotyping and prejudice can be avoided and how people can live harmoniously in a diverse society.

Human rights offer a vision of equality which can protect people from ill-treatment by 'plugging gaps' in the anti-discrimination framework. A human rights vision of equality gives 'added value' by extending beyond anti-discrimination to encompass fairness of treatment, dignity, and respect.

Human rights can also protect people who experience forms of ill-treatment that may not be considered discriminatory and therefore fall outside the protection offered by anti-discrimination legislation.

Building a human rights culture

The promotion of human rights awareness within public services is vital not only to facilitate the development of a tangible human rights culture within the services, but also to demonstrate commitment to human rights in dealing with the public.

Leadership, senior level commitment and engagement, and effective training in human rights principles and practice are fundamental to any organisation committed to compliance with the Human Rights Act.

Building a Human Rights culture emphasises the importance of staff and users recognising their common humanity.

Promoting and protecting Human Rights also improves operational efficiency.

Adopting a Human Rights approach means integrating human rights into existing initiatives and processes (such as those linked to equality and diversity) rather than 'reinventing the wheel'

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