Human rights law has been exploited by celebrities such as Catherine Zeta Jones but not elderly and vulnerable people who could benefit most, a Blairite think-tank said.
The Human Rights Act was cited by the Ocean's 12 star's lawyers in her battle against Hello! magazine over unauthorised wedding photos.
But ordinary people have missed out in the four years since it was introduced, according to a study from the Institute for Public Policy Research published on International Human Rights Day.
Voluntary organisations should be using the Act to help vulnerable people, such as those in care homes, claim their rights without resorting to the courts, the IPPR said.
The Act sets out rights to private and family life and prohibits degrading treatment.
That could drive up standards in care homes, improve housing conditions and services to patients, disabled people and crime victims, according to the IPPR.
Research fellow Frances Butler said: "The Human Rights Act has had a bad press. It's often blamed for preventing justice rather than promoting it.
"It's also hardly known that the Act can be applied outside the courtroom to help vulnerable and socially-excluded people. In fact, the Human Rights Act does have an important, positive role to play.
"Voluntary organisations are well placed to seek changes from public authorities on behalf of vulnerable people without necessarily having to go to court.
"Human rights principles like dignity and respect should guide the way in which public bodies provide services without the need to consult lawyers."