Right to life
Article 2 of the Human Rights Act protects the most fundamental of all human rights, the right to life.
It imposes strong obligations on the state:
- To refrain from taking life except where this is absolutely necessary in very limited circumstances, such as to prevent violence to another person, or to effect a lawful arrest;
- To protect life;
- To investigate when someone dies as a result of a criminal act or where the state may bear some responsibility for the death.
Since the Human Rights Act came into force, the most significant effect of Article 2 has been to enable bereaved families to obtain a full investigation into the death of a loved one.
EXAMPLES OF ‘RIGHT TO LIFE’ CASES
A mentally ill patient
A mother of two suffered from periodic bouts of depression and psychosis. For most of the time she was well, happily married and able to hold down a regular job. Every few years she would become unwell and require admission to hospital. On this occasion, she was admitted because it was clear that she was a risk to herself.
She was supposed to be checked regularly by staff but this did not happen. She wandered out of the ward, off the hospital site, walked two miles into the next town and threw herself under a train before the staff even noticed she was missing.
Her daughter wanted to know how this could have happened. The daughter brought a claim under Article 2. The court decided that there had been a real and immediate risk of harm to the patient, and that staff had not taken appropriate steps to minimise the risk. Because of this, it was decided that the hospital had failed to protect the patient, and her right to life had been violated.
A young prisoner
A first time offender was sentenced to three months in jail for theft. He was Asian and just 19 years old. He was placed in a cell with a disturbed and well-known racist who had spent the last three years in prison for a number of offences, some of them violent. The night before he was due to be released, the first time offender was beaten to death by his cellmate. The family called for a public inquiry into the killing, which the Government resisted in the courts. The House of Lords, our highest court (now the Supreme Court), eventually held that Article 2 required a public inquiry in a case such as this. The subsequent inquiry uncovered wide-ranging evidence of racism in prisons and concerns about the treatment of young men in Young Offender Institutions.
The mother of a murder victim
A 40 year old woman was murdered by a serial sex offender who had been released from a life sentence. The authorities had failed to appreciate the risk posed by the prisoner and he was released to a low security hostel where he was not closely supervised. After befriending the woman in a local pub, he murdered her in her own home.
Given that the murderer confessed to the killing almost immediately, the Coroner initially decided that there would be no need for an inquest. The mother of the victim used Article 2 to successfully argue that there needed to be a full inquest in order to properly examine how the murderer had come to be released and had been able to re-offend in this way.
Thankfully, these are situations which most of us are never likely to face. However when things do go terribly wrong, Article 2 provides a vital means of seeking an investigation and redress.