Human Rights, Your Rights and the Law in the UK

Author:
Chris Callender
Partner, Head of Claims against Public Authorities
Date:
06/02/2019

What is the Human Rights Act?

The Human Rights Act is a UK law passed in 1998 that lets you defend your human rights in Court. It enables you to force government, police and local Councils to treat you with fairness, dignity and respect.

The Human Rights Act protects all of us and hundreds of people use it to uphold their rights every year. It can be used by every person resident in the United Kingdom, whether a British citizen or a foreign national, a child or an adult, a prisoner or a member of the public.

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The Human Rights Act is based upon the European Convention on Human Rights. Some (not all) of those Rights include:

      • The right to life
      • The prohibition of torture and inhuman treatment
      • Protection against slavery and forced labour
      • The right to liberty and freedom
      • The right to a fair Trial and no punishment without law
      • Respect for privacy and family life and the right to marry
      • Freedom of thought, religion and belief

If you can show that your rights have been interfered with, you can take legal action. This could include taking a Local Authority to Court to protect your rights, seek compensation and receive an apology. Sometimes the Court may make a declaration that the actions of the authority were wrong, in which case the government may have to change the law.

The Right to Life

There is probably nothing more important in life than life itself. The Humans Rights Act protects this important principle in law. Where a person dies or nearly dies and there is concern about the circumstances of the death or near-death, then Article 2 of the Human Rights Act requires that the government must investigate the incident.

What Happens in an Inquest?

Where someone dies in unusual or unclear circumstances or in state custody or care, an “Inquest” is held. The Inquest is a Court investigation led by a Judge (called a Coroner) who will request and hear evidence to decide how the death should be recorded. Where someone dies when they’re in hospital, prison or in “the care” of the state, the Inquest will include a Jury.

In some circumstances, the Inquest should comply with article 2 of the Human Rights Act and identify whether the state failed to do something which may have caused the death.

The family or friends of the deceased are entitled to participate in the Inquest. They’re allowed to ask questions of witnesses to obtain answers to their concerns about the treatment or circumstances of the deceased. In some circumstances, the family may be granted Legal Aid in order to be represented at the Inquest by Lawyers.

Case Study – Inquest

Alex, 45, had suffered for many years with mental illness. He’d been detained under the Mental Health Act on several occasions but had mainly lived in the community where his mental health fluctuated. Over a number of years, community mental health services reduced the care that he was given and Alex’s mental health deteriorated significantly. Despite calls for help from his family, the community mental health team failed to come to his assistance and Alex took his own life.

Alex’s family were shocked and devastated by his death. The Inquest was originally to be conducted for one day with one witness. However, the family felt that the coroner hadn’t got to grips with the history of the case and the neglect of their loved one. Upon obtaining legal representation, the Coroner was persuaded to hold a full Inquest, with a Jury. After two weeks of evidence, the Jury found that the community mental health trust had neglected Alex and that the neglect had contributed to his death.

What Happens in a Public Inquiry?

Where someone nearly dies (near miss), then the government can be forced to hold a public Inquiry, led by an independent person to investigate what happened and whether the state did something wrong. The nature and method of the investigation will be similar to an Inquest, but wouldn’t include a Jury.

These types of inquiries are less frequent but no less important. A “near miss” could include an attempted suicide, serious and repetitive self-harm without treatment, poor care by services, a victim of trafficking or other scenario where the state should have ensured that the person was safeguarded.

There is no law or legal process to ensure that a public Inquiry is started. So unless the incident receives significant public and media scrutiny, it’s unlikely to be investigated. Typically, it will require Lawyers to intervene on behalf of the person/s involved to force the government to hold an Inquiry.

Case Study – Near Miss

George had been in the care of children’s services since he was 5 years old. Until he was taken into care, he had lived with his father, who had inflicted significant abuse and neglect upon him. His father had been a drug addict and suffered severe mental illness. George suffered trauma and distress as a result of the abuse and neglect and from the age of 12, self-harmed by cutting his body and bloodletting.

George got involved with a group of young people involved in offending and ended up in prison at the age of 14. While in prison, he managed to self-harm by cutting his arms and legs. The prison failed to respond to his mental health needs and his physical and mental health deteriorated significantly. George was placed in solitary confinement on the block and became very poorly due to blood loss.

He was taken to and from hospital for blood transfusions to keep him alive, but George nearly died. The severity of the self-harm only reduced once he was transferred to psychiatric hospital to receive therapeutic treatment.

George was frustrated and distressed by his treatment in prison. His Lawyers therefore requested that the government hold an Inquiry into his treatment due to the fact that he nearly died. The government agreed to hold the public Inquiry and fund his legal representation after being ordered to do so following Judicial Review proceedings in the High Court.

Conclusion

Human rights are for all people in all circumstances. There is unlikely to be anything more important than protecting life. This is even more important where the state has responsibility for protecting the vulnerable people in our community and ensuring they get the help they need when they need it. The state must genuinely learn lessons when it gets it wrong.

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