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At almost 800 years old, Magna Carta is one of the earliest milestones in the history of UK rights and freedoms. First issued in 1215, then redrafted in 1297, many aspects of the document appear obscure and of a different time.

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Liberty fringe: Common Values & common sense in Manchester

It was standing room only in the Alexandria Suite at the Midland Hotel, Manchester on Monday night. Welcoming Conservative delegates to Liberty’s 2011 fringe, Shami reminded the audience how those on the panel had come together in recent years to resist some of the worst excesses of authoritarian Government. But, referring to the Home Secretary’s pre-conference strike against the Human Rights Act, she asked the panel whether there was a risk of talking up human rights in the Arab Spring while trashing them in an Indian Summer at home?

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Article 6: Right to a fair hearing

Last week we embarked upon a new blog series exploring the Human Rights Act. Inspired by the myths and unprovoked attacks on the Act, and the lack of public education about the small bundle of rights and freedoms it contains, we’re conducting a weekly dissection of it – Article by Article – to get to the bottom of what it really means. Today we’re looking at Article 6: the right to a fair hearing.

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The History of Human Rights

Picture: Eleanor Roosevelt – diplomat, activist and former First Lady of the United States – and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In Britain the idea that human beings possess a set of inherent and inalienable rights has deep roots which can be traced back over centuries.

Here are some of the key dates in the history of human rights in the UK.


1166 – Abolition of trial by combat and trial by ordeal

The earliest ancestor of contemporary human rights protection was the Assize of Clarendon, passed by Henry II in 1166. A precursor to trial by jury, the Assize paved the way for the abolition of trial by combat and trial by ordeal.

1215 – Magna Carta

Another of the earliest and most commonly cited milestones in the history of human rights in the UK is the Magna Carta – an English Charter issued in 1215 which contained the writ of habeas corpus, allowing people to appeal against imprisonment without trial.

1647 – “An Agreement of the People”

In the autumn of 1647, a group of English political activists, the ‘Levellers’, produced “An Agreement of the People”, which set forth a collection of constitutional principles discussed at the famous Putney debates. The Levellers called for liberty of conscience in matters of religion, freedom from conscription and asked that laws “apply equally to everyone: there must be no discrimination on grounds of tenure, estate, charter, degree, birth or place”.

1689 – Bill of Rights

One of the most important documents in the political history of Britain: the Bill of Rights was published in 1689. It put the notion of inalienable rights beyond doubt. An Act of Parliament after the ‘Glorious Revolution’, the Bill included the freedom to petition the Monarch (a precursor to political protest rights), the freedom from cruel and unusual punishments (the forerunner to the ban on torture contained in our Human Rights Act) and the freedom from being fined without trial.

1774 – Parliamentary Register

In a victory for public information and the free press the Parliamentary Register was launched in 1774, following campaigning by Radical MP John Wilkes and others. The Register reported the details of parliamentary debates which had previously been restricted.

1832 – Reform Act

The 1832 Reform Act increased the electorate from around 366,000 to 650,000 people, about 18 per cent of the total adult-male population in England and Wales. It excluded women and working class men, and votes were still cast in public, but it was a landmark on the road towards universal suffrage.

1833 – The Slavery Abolition Act

The Slavery Abolition Act was passed, outlawing the slave trade throughout the British Empire.

1918 – Representation of the People Act

At the end of the First World War the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to all women over 30, enfranchising over eight million women. Shortly afterwards women were also allowed to stand for Parliament, although it took another decade for the vote to be extended to all adult women.

1934 – Liberty founded

Liberty was founded, as the National Council for Civil Liberties, and 80 years later we’re still going strong. Find out more about our history.

1948 – Universal Declaration of Human Rights

As the world reeled from the horrors of the Second World War, there came an important realisation that although fundamental rights should be respected as a matter of course, without formal protection human rights concepts are of little use to those facing persecution. The result was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the most important agreements in the history of human rights.

1950 – European Convention on Human Rights

The European Convention on Human Rights was agreed in the aftermath of the Second World War. British lawyers played an instrumental role in the development of the Convention, and the UK signed up in 1951. Find out more about international laws protecting human rights.

1957 – The Wolfenden Report

The Wolfenden Report was published, marking a turning point in official attitudes towards homosexuality in Western countries. Male homosexuality was finally decriminalised a decade later in the Sexual Offences Act.

1975/6 – Sex Discrimination Act and Race Relations Act

In 1975 and 1976 respectively the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act made it illegal to discriminate against anyone on grounds of their gender or ethnicity, and introduced the concept of indirect discrimination.

1998 – Human Rights Act

Enacted by a youthful Labour Government in 1998, the Human Rights Act (HRA) contains a set of civil and political rights considered fundamental to any liberal democracy. Since it came into force, the HRA has been used as a political football as the Government and the Opposition both seek to seem the toughest on crime and terror by creating a false distinction between liberty and security. But the Human Rights Act is rooted in British culture and history and it has a proud, 800-year-old family tree.

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights