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“Back in October, there were lots of people thinking there would be a tidal wave that would transform the system of law,” says David Leckie, employment partner at Maclay Murray & Spens. “What we have actually seen are two or three bold decisions by the courts, such as in the Alconbury case, which have nearly all been overturned by higher courts. The courts are not in chaos. It is business as usual”.Anecdotal evidence suggests that the avalanche of challenges predicted after the implementation of the Human Rights Act (HRA) in October has yet to materialise.The statistical evidence that has been compiled backs up that impression. Answering a Parliamentary question in March, Lord Irvine produced figures showing there had only been 79 cases involving human rights challenges brought to the High Court in the first three months of the HRA’s implementation, only one of which relied solely on the Act.In the crown and county courts, less than 250 of 467,000 claims received during that period raised human rights points. Since the HRA was brought to bear on Scottish law in May 1999, only 3.7% of the cases there raising human rights points have been successful. In addition, the majority of claims relate to criminal, not commercial law.The unanimous ruling of the House of Lords on 9 May that the UK’s planning system is HRA compliant will further deter prospective claimants from using HRA-related arguments in the civil courts. There is no doubt that the sceptical attitude of the courts towards HRA challenges has done much to stem a potential flood of claims. “Lawyers were expecting that there would be a number of people trying to see how far they could get with the new system,” says Richard Sagar, public law partner at Walker Morris. “It was felt that it left an extra angle open for objectors to run another tier of arguments on top of those they were already using. I am not sure that it has had that much effect.”The system has also been cushioned by existing legislation to safeguard human rights. “It is not as though before the Act was in place there was no respect for convention rights in the UK,” points out Maurice Sheridan of Matrix Chambers. “There was already a high degree of compliance within the system.”The huge levels of media attention before the HRA received Royal Assent did much to spur public bodies into pre-emptive action.In one notable example, the Financial Services Authority reworked its controversial investigative and disciplinary procedures to resist a successful challenge under the Act.With many cases still in the pipeline however, it is too early to assess the act’s impact. Jenny Watson, director of the Human Rights Act research unit at King’s College Law School, says it may be 10 years before its full scope will be seen. “It is no surprise that there has not yet been a really overwhelming case.” Other challenges may soon reach the UK’s top court, notably Wilson vs First County Trust, which has resulted in a Court of Appeal judgment that the Consumer Credit Act is in breach of human rights law.Perhaps the true impact of the HRA can only be gauged once a number of cases have gone to the European Court of Human Rights.As Leckie sums up: “The really interesting stage is where the decisions of the higher courts go to Strasbourg. If Strasbourg rules that the House of Lords was wrong, what is the Government going to do about it?”

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