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Starting with law
Starting with law

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2 Starting to think about rights and responsibilities

Throughout this course we will be considering rights and responsibilities that are provided by, protected by and imposed by the law. These range from rights and responsibilities that are fundamental to all of our lives to rights and responsibilities that apply to particular aspects of our lives when we are undertaking a specific role, for example as a worker or a parent. Practical examples will be used to help explain this. The examples will also show, importantly, that in many instances where the law provides us with rights on the one hand, it also imposes responsibilities on the other. For example, an employer has a responsibility to pay an employee for work done and an employee has the right to claim unpaid wages. An employee also has a responsibility to obey reasonable, lawful orders while an employer may be able to dismiss an employee for failure to obey such orders.

The law describes a person able to exercise their rights and responsibilities as having legal capacity. Having legal capacity means that a person has the mental capacity to understand and appreciate the consequences of their actions. Although all individuals have basic rights from the time they are born, the law determines that children and young people acquire more rights and responsibilities as they mature and their mental capacity develops.

Equally, when mental capacity is lost through illness or accident in later life, the law recognises that legal capacity is also affected, and allows others to make decisions for individuals who cannot understand the consequences of their actions.

Law is involved in a balancing act between the rights of different individuals and therefore imposes responsibilities to balance those rights. The following tables illustrate this question of balance.

If you are employed then you have a contractual relationship with your employer. In law, your employer has a responsibility for your health and safety; in return you have a responsibility not to risk the health and safety of others in your workplace.

Table 1 Health and safety rights and responsibilities for workers
Workers have the right:Workers have the responsibility:
  • to work in places where all the risks to their health and safety are properly controlled
  • to stop working and leave the area if they think they are in danger
  • to inform their employer about health and safety issues or concerns
  • to contact the Health and Safety Executive or their local authority if they still have health and safety concerns, and not get into trouble
  • to join a trade union and be a safety representative
  • to paid time off work for training if they are a safety representative
  • to a rest break of at least 20 minutes if they work more than six hours at a stretch and to an annual period of paid leave.
  • to take care of their own health and safety and that of people who may be affected by what they do (or do not do)
  • to cooperate with others on health and safety issues and not interfere with, or misuse, anything provided for their health, safety or welfare.

Whenever you buy anything as a consumer you are entering into a contract which is a legally binding agreement. In doing so, you have certain rights and responsibilities, set out in Table 2. If you use public rights of way in the countryside, you have the rights and responsibilities set out in Table 3.

Table 2 Rights and responsibilities for consumers

The goods you buy must be:

  • of satisfactory quality
  • fit for purpose
  • as described (for example in a catalogue or on a website).

If not, then:

  • you have the right to ask for your money back
  • you do not have to accept a replacement
  • you do not have to accept a credit note
  • if you agree to a repair and it is unsatisfactory, then it will not stop you claiming your money back.
  • You must return faulty goods within a reasonable time.
  • You must not have accepted the goods in their damaged condition.
Table 3 Rights and responsibilities for users of public rights of way
  • Pedestrians have the right to use public footpaths, bridleways, restricted byways and byways.
  • Equestrians have the right to use bridleways, restricted byways and byways.
  • Cyclists have the right to use bridleways, restricted byways and byways.
  • Horse-drawn vehicles have the right to use restricted byways and byways.
  • Motorbikes and vehicles have the right to use byways.
  • You have the right to pass and repass along the public right of way; this may include admiring the view, taking photographs or resting, as long as you stay on the line of the path and do not cause an obstruction.
  • You may take a dog with you, but you must keep it under proper control (see responsibilities).
  • You may take a short route around an illegal obstruction or remove it sufficiently to get past.
  • Use Ordnance Survey maps to find your way around and look out for waymark posts and signposts.
  • Walk in single file across arable land, avoid spreading out and trespassing on a wide area.
  • Avoid obstructing field gateways when parking at the beginning of your walk, use lay-bys and car parks where possible.
  • Follow the country code:

    • be safe – plan ahead and follow any signs
    • consider other people
    • keep dogs under close control (you should not let them foul the right of way, farmland or any place to which the public have access; do not allow dogs to worry livestock, run through arable crops or flush game from hedgerows)
    • leave gates and property as you find them
    • protect plants and animals and take your litter home.

From these tables you can see that there is a balance between rights and responsibilities. When exercising their rights, individuals also need to recognise the rights of others. A balance is needed and with rights come responsibilities. The following example might help to explain this. Children have a right to education. Local authorities have a legal responsibility to provide education for all children of compulsory school age in their area (5- to 16-year-olds) which is appropriate to their age, abilities and any special educational needs that they might have.

Schoolchildren have a responsibility not to disrupt lessons so that other pupils are prevented from receiving their right to education.