The Human Rights Act has been used to win advocacy goals for a number of groups, writes John Plummer.
Human rights have not traditionally featured highly on charities' lists of campaigning weapons. But the situation could be about to change.
The Equality Act, which was passed last month, paved the way for the establishment of a Commission for Equality and Human Rights in 2007. Existing equality bodies for gender, race and disability will merge into the new super-commission.
With its sharper focus on human rights rather than the particular interests of a specific group, the commission could become an effective ally for charities in achieving their advocacy goals. But the opportunity is in danger of passing many organisations by.
"Voluntary organisations should wake up to the value of a human rights approach to help secure decent and respectful treatment for people," says Katie Ghose, director of the British Institute of Human Rights.
"Advocates and groups who are aware of the Human Rights Act use it to challenge everyday abuses such as the separation of frail couples when one goes into residential care. But more than five years on from the introduction of the law, most organisations are failing to use it to secure decent, fair and respectful treatment for those most in need."
Ghose's comments come at the end of a three-year pilot programme by the institute to help voluntary organisations use human rights to challenge abuse and poor standards of services.
The programme, which ended in January, found that many charities hadn't the faintest idea about how human rights affected their work. The institute wants to work with infrastructure bodies and umbrella groups in the sector to raise understanding and offers free human rights training to voluntary organisations.
Some not-for-profit groups have shown what can be achieved. Three years ago refugee charities, backed by a broad coalition of other voluntary organisations, used the European Convention on Human Rights to curtail government attempts to change asylum law. The then Home Secretary David Blunkett wanted to stop refugees from claiming food and accommodation if they did not immediately apply for asylum on arrival in the UK. Charities successfully argued in the High Court that the denial of state support to newly arrived asylum seekers was a breach of human rights.
"The sector as a whole played a really important part in that campaign," says Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty. "Because it also involved the likes of Save the Children and Shelter, people listened."
Mencap used the Human Rights Act to prevent care staff managers implementing guidelines forbidding staff from manually lifting patients. Managers wanted patients to be hoisted from their beds, claiming manual lifting posed a health risk to staff.
Mencap argued that the use of hoists breached patients' rights to dignity.
"The Act was very useful to us," says David Congdon, head of campaigns and policy at Mencap. "There was an over-emphasis on health and safety, and we were able to argue that some of the hoisting was undignified.
"The question now is, having got the judgement, how we translate that into changed practices. We've been looking to apply the ruling to other areas, but it's expensive to mount a case."
The cost of litigation and the legal process deter charities from taking action. But human rights are not just about mounting legal challenges - they are supposed to be a way of getting policies and procedures in place that prevent abuses of common decency and respect.
Prevention, rather than litigation, was in mind when the Act was introduced.
It was aimed at improving public services by creating a culture of human rights in a way that the more general European convention could not achieve.
But with the boundaries of the public sector being broken down by schemes such as the private finance initiative and charities delivering public services, there is confusion regarding the extent to which the Act, which refers to 'public authority', covers voluntary and private sector bodies.
The Department for Constitutional Affairs is expected to launch a consultation before Easter to get feedback on the issue.
Belinda Pratten, policy officer at the NCVO, says charities need to raise their game. "Values that underpin human rights are very close to the values that underpin the voluntary sector," she says. "But it's something that hasn't been picked up on much."
Ghose adds: "Charities should be thinking about their role in relation to the Commission for Equality and Human Rights and how it can help them to root out the human rights abuses they come across every day."