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“Public authorities” in Human Rights Act

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Last updated 27th February, 2020 (part update 19th August 2022).

‘This page gives a brief overview of who are “public authorities” for the purposes of the Human Rights Act.

Why does it matter?

A public authority must not act in a way incompatible with a Convention right, unless required to do so by primary legislation which cannot be interpreted in any other way (s.6 Human Rights Act 1998). A person may claim against the public authority if it breaches this (s.7).

Even though a claim for breach of the Convention under ss.6 and 7 HRA can only be brought against a ‘public authority’, the Convention is often very relevant for other claims, eg against private companies: Enforcement of European Convention and HRA 1998>Claim against others.

“Core” public authorities

‘Public authority’ includes firstly bodies which are are ‘obviously’ public authorities, such as central and local government and the police. The s.6 duty will apply to all the authority’s activities, whether public or private in nature.

For example the Court of Appeal agreed that the headteacher and governors of maintained schools are core public authorities in Ali v Headteachers and Governors of Lord Grey School (bailii.org), 2004, para 36-38 (overturned by the House of Lords (bailii.org) on other grounds).

Public authorities include courts, and also tribunals exercising functions in relation to legal proceedings (s.6(3)(a)(b), s.21 HRA).

“Hybrid” public authorities

‘Public authority’ also includes “any person certain of whose functions are of a public nature”, except so far as the nature of the particular act in question is private (s.6(3)(b) and (5) HRA). This is a difficult area which I won’t say much about. To give a couple of examples:

The scope of this provision was given a relatively restrictive interpretation by the House of Lords in YL v Birmingham City Council (disabilityrightsuk.org), 2007, full judgment bailii.org. It was not enough to be simply a company to whom certain public functions have been contracted out. In YL the House of Lords held that provision of care by a private care home under contract with a local authority was not within the Human Rights Act (though this has since been reversed by legislation).

However a housing trust evicting a tenant has been held to be within the Human Rights Act as a hybid authority: London and Quadrant Housing Trust v R (Weaver) (disabilityrightsuk.org), 2009, full judgment bailii.org.

Most employment matters may be ‘private’ acts, and therefore outside of a s.6 claim in the case of ‘hybrid’ public authorities. However, employment matters or other private acts of a ‘core’ public authority, such as central and local government or the police, can be claimed for under s.6.

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