Myth #1: Human rights law comes from the EU
Owing to the pan-European nature of the European Convention on Human Rights, the founding agreement of human rights law, it is widely believed to stem from the European Union. However, this is not the case; in fact, the origins of the Convention lie with an unrelated organisation called the Council of Europe.
The Council of Europe is a body which was set up in 1949 in the wake of the Second World War to foster common ground and peace between nations in the war-torn continent. The UK was instrumental in its establishment, with a key role being played by Winston Churchill, who had called for the organisation's creation as early as 1943. In 1950 the Convention was finalised, which set out a number of rights that the states signing it guaranteed to protect. These rights included the right to life, to liberty, to marry and establish a family and to have freedom of religion, association and expression. A court was set up to ensure the Convention's enforcement; the European Court of Human Rights, which sits in Strasbourg. Its jurisdiction covers all Council of Europe members, which includes non-EU countries such as Russia and Turkey.
The European Union, on the other hand, is an organisation based on the idea of free trade. Its origins lie in the European Economic Community; a free trade area originally comprising six countries which was created in 1958. The UK did not join until 1973. It also has a court to ensure its rules are upheld; the European Court of Justice, which sits in Brussels.
The separation between the Council of Europe and the European Union is a fact often unappreciated by the media, with several newspapers having been called out recently for confusions such as referring to "EU judges" when they are in fact talking about European Court of Human Rights judges in Strasbourg.
Myth #2: Human rights law gives people unqualified rights
Often, the "absolute" or "unqualified" nature of human rights can be heard being decried by politicians and the media.
However, the Convention does not bestow "absolute" rights; in fact, nearly every human right can be limited. For example, we all have the right to liberty - but if a person commits a crime, then they can be deprived of that liberty in the interests of justice and public safety by being put into jail. Similarly, each of us holds the right to freedom of expression (including free speech) - but this is capable of being limited, for example for the purposes of preventing the promotion of racial hatred. Even the right to life was not unqualified in the original Convention, which was introduced at a time when many Council of Europe member states still practiced capital punishment (although nearly all countries have subsequently agreed to abolish the death penalty).
Although rights can be restricted, the protection for individuals remains in a number of forms. To start with, states may only interfere with their citizens' human rights for certain purposes, known as legitimate aims. A country can limit its people's right to freedom of association in order to prevent public gatherings of terrorist groups, but not in order to suppress legitimate political opposition. There must also be a rational connection between the measure that the state takes that limits people's rights and the aim it is targeting and it must be no more than what is necessary to bring the aim about.
Furthermore, a state can only interfere with fundamental rights in a manner which is proportionate to the aim it is pursuing. If the measure it proposes places too high a burden on individuals to be justified by the gain then it could be held to be disproportionate.
Of course, what is and isn't 'proportionate' is a far from simple issue. In immigration cases the most commonly engaged right comes from Article 8 of the European Convention - the right to respect for a private and family life - but like nearly all rights a person's right to a family life is not absolute. The Government can impose restrictions on who can live in the UK for various reasons, including protecting British jobs and preventing reliance on public funds. These are among the rationales used to justify the £18,600 minimum income requirement for spouse visas (the amount a person generally must be earning before their non-European spouse can come to the UK). Blocking a married couple who do not earn enough money from living together in the country of one spouse's citizenship is a serious restriction on the right to a family life - but is it a proportionate restriction, bearing in mind the overall purposes? What about if they have children who are settled in school in the UK? Or if the British partner has a disabled parent who they need to be in the UK to look after? What is the effect of the fact that the current £18,600 required income level is greatly in excess of the UK's minimum wage, and excludes many couples who would not in any case be able to claim any benefits? These are the kinds of questions that have been asked in the courts recently.
Myth #3: You can sue a person for breaching your human rights
This is complicated. Generally speaking, human rights law places obligations upon public bodies to respect their citizens' human rights; not upon citizens to respect the rights of each other.
However, one proviso to this is that courts themselves are public bodies, which means they must carry out their duties in a way which respects the rights in the Convention. This can make human rights relevant even when a court is deciding an issue between two non-state parties (such as an employer and an employee). Although you might not be able to take a case against, for example, your employer to court on purely human rights grounds, it is possible that if a case is brought on other grounds, such as discrimination, human rights could be relevant to the way this case is decided.
Myth #4: Human rights law allows unelected judges to override the will of Parliament
In 1998, in one of the first acts of Tony Blair's New Labour Government, the European Convention on Human Rights was finally fully incorporated into UK law with the passage of the Human Rights Act (it did previously play a role, but had a less intrinsic status). This means that when judges follow the Convention they are doing what they have been instructed to do by Parliament.
Sometimes it may arise that a law of the Westminster Parliament is contradictory to the Convention. In these circumstances, if there is more than one possible interpretation of the law, then the court must follow the one that is in tune with upholding Convention rights. However, if it the law is clearly contradictory and cannot be interpreted in any other way then the court must follow the Westminster law, although it can issue a 'declaration of incompatibility' which might persuade Parliament to change its laws. (The situation is different when it comes to laws of the Scottish Parliament, which can be struck down by judges on the grounds of incompatibility with the Convention).
However, many of the rules which govern us do not emanate directly from Parliament but from the 'executive' branch of Government (i.e. from Government ministers). This is the case with the UK's Immigration Rules, which the Government simply needs to 'lay before' Parliament rather than put them to a vote, and which are frequently altered. These rules can be challenged in the courts.
Myth #5: Human rights law once allowed a criminal to remain in the UK on the basis of owning a cat
In 2011, the Home Secretary Theresa May announced, "We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act... [such as] the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat". (She also included two other examples of stories about the Human Rights Act - but the story of the cat gathered the most attention).
However, upon reading the judgement in question, it is apparent that the reason the person in question won his case against being deported was not in fact to do with him having a cat but to do with the Home Office incorrectly applying its own published policy in place at the time (see here for a good summary).
In recent times, the debate regarding the UK's relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights and with the Strasbourg court has intensified. A number of perspectives exist concerning the future protection of the kind of fundamental rights set out in the Convention in the UK and Scotland. Balancing the rights of the individual against the interests of society at large, as well as against the competing rights of other individuals, is a fascinating challenge from an intellectual perspective - it is also an issue with potentially life-changing implications for individuals, particularly those in vulnerable groups. What remains important is the need for clear and truthful information to form the background to the discussion.