Keep your guard up over the Human Rights Act

The long-awaited Human Rights Act comes into force next Monday. For HR professionals this is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that this is the last piece of employment legislation they will be expected to deal with before the next General Election. The bad news is that there is widespread uncertainty – some might describe it as confusion – over what it all means.

The Act is the last piece of legislation in a long list introduced since the Blair Government came to power.

Leading HR professionals say they have not underestimated the potential for the Act to generate legal action against them. They say they are prepared for the Act, having reviewed procedures and kept pace with best practice over the past few years. They are satisfied, at least as far as they can be, that no nasty legal surprises lie in wait. And they remain sceptical of predictions by some lawyers that they are about to be deluged by claims.

But the implications of the Act remain unclear at best. Local authorities, for example, fear they could face action against employees such as social workers from members of the public. Surveillance of employees has been described as an area “ripe” for legal action.

HR professionals may feel confident that there will be no big increase in cases brought. But many legal firms beg to differ. Recent additions to the statute books – as a result of this Government and from Europe – have meant business is booming for employment lawyers. Firms say they have seen demand increase more in the past few years than in the whole of the previous decade. Whatever the final outcome, some are currently preparing to handle large numbers of cases.

The most worrying aspect of the Human Rights Act is that it is wide-ranging in a way not seen before by HR professionals. Much of its application will be determined by case law. This means the true impact of the Act is likely to take years to emerge.

Amid the confusion, however, one message is patently clear. The Act brings the value and importance of regularly updating best practice into sharp focus. Employers will need to keep a vigilant eye on developments long after the immediate blaze of publicity has died down.

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