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Taking the Strasbourg Jurisprudence into Account: developing a “municipal law of human rights” under the Human Rights Act 1998

Masterman, R.

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Questions surrounding the legitimate extent of the judicial role have long been the source of controversy. Concerns that unelected and unrepresentative judges are ‘legislating’ rather than interpreting the law or are interfering in matters of ‘democratically endorsed’ government policy, have often been, and will continue to be, raised by academics and politicians alike. The question is one of separation of power— of the appropriate constitutional role and division of functions between the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the United Kingdom Government. This debate has been given a new dimension by the Human Rights Act 1998 (hereafter HRA), most obviously through the courts' exercise of their power under section 3(1) of that Act—the duty to interpret primary and secondary legislation to be, as far as possible, compatible with ‘the Convention rights’. Indeed much has been made of the unique method by which the HRA reconciles the interpretative obligation under section 3(1) with the sovereignty of Parliament by way of the ‘declaration of incompatibility’ under section 4. The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty imposes limits on the scope of section 3(1); in spite of its ‘broad and malleable’ language, which might permit ‘an interpretation which linguistically may appear strained’, it does not sanction courts to act as legislators. As Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead noted in Re S; Re W, attributing to a statutory provision ‘a meaning which departs substantially from a fundamental feature of an Act of Parliament is likely to have crossed the boundary between interpretation and amendment’. That case has been seen by some as a retreat from what has been termed the ‘far-fetched’ interpretation of section 3(1) adopted by the House of Lords in the earlier decision of R v A. Nicol, for one, has argued that Re S; Re W and Anderson taken together, clearly reject ‘the notion that “interpretations” could conflict with clear statutory words' — as R v A had arguably suggested — thereby endorsing parliamentary sovereignty, above the Convention, ‘as the country's supreme constitutional doctrine’. For it to retain its legitimacy therefore, the judicial act under section 3(1) needs to remain an exercise of ‘interpretation’: to attribute a meaning to a legislative provision ‘quite different from that which Parliament intended … would go well beyond any interpretative process sanctioned by section 3 of the 1998 Act’. It would ‘not be judicial interpretation but judicial vandalism’.


Masterman, R. (2005). Taking the Strasbourg Jurisprudence into Account: developing a “municipal law of human rights” under the Human Rights Act 1998. International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 54(4), 907-931.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date Oct 1, 2005
Deposit Date Aug 13, 2008
Publicly Available Date Aug 13, 2008
Journal International and Comparative Law Quarterly
Print ISSN 0020-5893
Electronic ISSN 1471-6895
Publisher British Institute of International and Comparative Law
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 54
Issue 4
Pages 907-931


Accepted Journal Article (396 Kb)

Copyright Statement
This is a pre-copy-editing, author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in 'International and comparative law quarterly' following peer review. The definitive publisher-authenticated version, Masterman, R. (2005) 'Taking the Strasbourg Jurisprudence into account : developing a 'municipal law of human rights' under the Human Rights Act 1998.' , International and comparative law quarterly., 54 (4), pp. 907-931, is available online at:

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