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Legal skills and debates in Scotland
Legal skills and debates in Scotland

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1  What are human rights?

‘Rights’ is a word that can be used in many different ways. Its meaning will depend on circumstances and the viewpoint of the individual using the word. Lawyers use it to indicate that a person has a specific legally protected entitlement, for example, not to be dismissed unfairly from their job, not to be prosecuted unless they know what the charge against them is, not to be inhumanly treated, the right of children to state-funded education.

Image of a hand with the words ‘I am a human with rights’ written across it.
Figure 1Illustration of human rights

The term ‘rights’ can, however, also be used in a more general sense, for example, to make a moral claim if you feel you have a right to something, whether or not that right is legally recognised. Such rights claims stem from personal assessments of what is right or should be valued, and can be used to form the basis of an argument that a particular law is unjust or unfair. In this week we use the idea of rights in the legal sense, i.e. when talking about the actual legal claims that individuals can make of, for example, local authorities and government.

In Scotland, and the rest of the UK, individuals have specific and recognised legal rights, for example, to benefits if they are not able to work or to state-funded financial support upon reaching the state pension age. These examples illustrate positive rights (the right to something) and individual rights (rights which do not consider collective or majority interest). However, it is also recognised that there are significant debates about who should have rights and who should be accorded rights and in what circumstances.

The statement in Box 1 is an extract from the Scottish Government policy on human rights and justice (as expressed in 2017 by an SNP-led government). The words ‘inalienable’, ‘respect’, ‘fundamental’ and ‘rights are guaranteed’ for everyone are commonly used when human rights are being discussed and we will return to these later.

The link in Box 1 will take you to information on how the Scottish Government protects and promotes human rights at home and abroad. You may wish to visit this website briefly, but it is not essential for your studies on this course.

Box 1 Scottish Government statement on human rights in Scotland

Every person is entitled to inalienable fundamental rights and freedoms. In Scotland the legal framework exists to ensure respect for human rights, and we are active in continually and consistently applying these principles so that fundamental human rights are guaranteed for every member of Scottish society and promoted in our international action.