The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and United Kingdom Law

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Freedom of Association and Trade Union Rights



The right to freedom of association is wide-ranging and hotly contested. It is an essential feature of (liberal or social) democratic society, 'protecting individuals from the vulnerability of isolation and ensuring the potential of effective participation in society'.1 As such freedom of association has been recognized in United Kingdom law in the same way as many other so-called human rights or fundamental freedoms, in the sense that people have been free to associate with others and to promote the interests of the association, provided that their action in doing so was not otherwise restricted by law (statute or common law).2

In fact, historically, there have been few formal limits on freedom of association in this country, although there have been some, generated by a number of different concerns.3 For the most part, and certainly in recent years, the main area of concern relates to restrictions on trade unions in connection with which a number of statutory controls and other limitations have been introduced. These measures have generated a number of complaints and communications to the International Labour Organization, the supervisory agencies of which have had occasion to find that the legislation in question falls short of international labour standards.4 This is

Lavigne v. Ontario Public Service Employees Union ( 1991) 81 DLR (4th) 545.
See Ewing, K. D., "'Freedom of Association'" in McCrudden, C., and Chambers, G. (eds.), Individual Rights and the Law in Britain ( Oxford, 1994), 239-63.
See CCPR/C/1/Add. 17: 'There are no legal objections to complete freedom of association other than those concerned with public safety, national security, and the prevention of crime. It is unlawful, for example, to organise an association for the purpose of usurping the function of the police or of the armed forces of the Crown, or for the use or display of physical force in promoting any political object (Public Order Act 1936, s. 2).'
For an account see Creighton, W. B., "'The ILO and Protection of Freedom of Association in the United Kingdom'" in Ewing, K. D., Gearty, C. A., and Hepple, B. A., (eds.), Human Rights and Labour Law--Essays for Paul O'Higgins ( London, 1994). See also Ewing, K. D., Britain and the ILO ( 2nd edn., London, 1994).


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