LONDON — BRITAIN urgently needs a bill of rights and should replace its unwritten constitution with a written one as soon as possible. That is the view of a group of eminent lawyers who have launched a campaign to end Britain's isolation as Europe's only major country without a written constitution. Lord Scarman, a respected retired appeals court judge, has thrown his considerable weight behind the campaign, and a leading political think tank has drafted a parliamentary bill which it urges government and opposition parties to support.
The surge of legal opinion favoring a British bill of rights follows calls in Parliament for incorporation into British law of the European Convention of Human Rights. The convention, implemented by a court in Strasbourg, France, defines the rights of citizens of most European countries.
Successive governments in London, however, have resisted calls to harmonize British law with the convention. Any citizen who considers that his or her fundamental freedoms have been transgressed by the British government or British courts has to plead the case in Strasbourg. This can be costly and time-consuming. But it can also be successful - suggesting that Britain is out of step with its European neighbors in civil rights matters. In recent years, more than 80 British laws and regulations have had to be appealed or amended as a result of European court judgments.
In Britain, a citizen's rights are supposed to be safeguarded under legislation passed by Parliament and under a body of ``common law'' going back centuries. Parliament can change the law, and in so doing modify existing rights. In the past few years, for example, it has curbed the right of access to public information, particularly in sensitive areas such as Northern Ireland.
IT has also restricted the rights of people suspected of breaking the law. Britain refused to accept a European Court of Human Rights ruling last year against the holding of people by police for lengthy periods before their appearance in court. This is done under Britain's Prevention of Terrorism Act.
The Strasbourg court ruled last October that Britain is violating the rights of prisoners serving life sentences by denying them a full judicial review from time to time of their claims for early release. On this, the British authorities seemed prepared to listen. The Home Office has agreed to take a second look at its rules for reviewing life sentences.
The bill published this month by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), which is mildly left-wing in its orientation, proposes to codify the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information. It also lays down guidelines for freedom from discrimination on grounds of sex, race, and age, and says the death penalty is wrong ``in any circumstances.''
In Britain, there is no death penalty. On Dec. 17, Parliament reaffirmed its opposition to capital punishment. But most opinion polls show a majority of the British favor restoring the death penalty for murder.
Launching the IPPR draft bill, Anthony Lester, a senior barrister, said it was the first stage of a project aimed at producing a full written constitution for Britain to be published next May.
Lord Scarman, who has campaigned for more than 20 years for a written constitution, added: ``The draft is a significant step forward along the path to constitutional reform. Were it to be enacted, it would provide real protection for the rights of the individual in Britain. Constitutional reform is a requirement of our time.''
James Cornford, director of the IPPR, said that at the Strasbourg court Britain had been found guilty of human rights infringement ``in more cases than any other member state.'' This proved that human rights in Britain fell far short of international standards, he said.
The IPPR and its supporters have carefully timed their campaign in favor of a bill of rights. They are calculating that after more than 11 years in office, the present Conservative government is likely to lose the next general election. The opposition Labour Party is more sympathetic than its opponents to calls for human rights to be enshrined in a special British charter or bill.