On 2 October 2000 our Human Rights Act became law, protecting universal human rights across the UK. Fifteen years on, this October BIHR has organised 15 days of action, including a tour with events across the UK to celebrate this important anniversary our Human Rights Act and the difference it has made to our democracy and people’s lives across the UK.  Each day we will be looking at one story from each of the years the Human Rights Act has been in force. Today is the turn of Year 10, 2010, and the case of Private Jason Smith.  This case is important because it established that the families of soldiers who die on UK bases overseas have the right to a proper inquest under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, to investigate whether or not the government did all it could to protect their lives.

Our Human Rights Act works in three distinct ways to protect 16 of our human rights, first written down in the European Convention on Human Rights. First of all, it means all the laws governing our country must be compatible with our human rights. Second, it means we can go to a local court or tribunal at home in the UK when we think our rights have been violated or put at risk by a public official or authority. Last, our HRA places a duty on everyone who wields public power to respect our human rights as they do so. It was these last two functions of the HRA that were so crucial to Mrs Smith, Pte Smith’s mother, in securing accountability for his death.

Pte Smith had first joined the Territorial Army in 1992. 11 years later, in June 2003, he mobilised in Iraq, and was billeted in a stadium in Al Amarah, not far from Camp Abu Naji. Weeks later, that August, temperatures had reached 50°C in the shade alone. Pte Smith told his superiors that the heat was making him ill, and he was assigned to various duties off the base over the next few days. Four days after first reporting that he was sick, he was found collapsed near his room. An ambulance was called and he was rushed to the medical centre at Camp Abu Naji, where he died of heatstroke.

An initial, limited inquest into Pte Smith’s death was conducted. However, Mrs Smith, his mother, said that a fuller investigation, in which she could be properly involved, should take place, because the MOD had had an obligation to her son under the Human Rights Act to protect his right to life (Article 2) as far as was reasonably practicable, and it seemed that in this case, it had potentially failed to do so. Both the government and the Supreme Court agreed with Mrs Smith that the MOD had had obligations to take reasonable steps to protect her son’s life, and thus an inquest to investigate whether those obligations had been discharged was required. As one of the judges, Lord Collins, said “this was a death which might have been prevented if proper precautions had been taken”.

The case of Pte Jason Smith is an important one first and foremost because it secured for his family, and in particular his mother, a proper inquest, in which they could be involved, into how and why he died, and what lesson could be learned for the future, as Lady Hale said, “to prevent other families suffering as [Mrs Smith’s] has suffered.” Significantly, this case also reinforced the important point that human rights are for everyone. Soldiers who answer the call of duty have human rights too. While the risks associated with being stationed overseas are not the same risks that a firefighter or ambulance driver might face here in the UK, the principle remains the same: when people die in situations over which our government has authority and control, whether that’s in a mental health hospital, a prison, or on a UK army base overseas, and there is a possibility that the government failed to take steps to protect their lives, there should be an investigation, a full inquest, under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, to see whether or not that is in fact the case.

Proposed changes to the Human Rights Act set out by the current government would “limit the reach of human rights cases to the UK”. It is suggested that this would stop human rights from getting in the way of soldiers doing their jobs. But as the case of Pte Smith shows, it wasn’t the Human Rights Act that prevented him from doing his job. It was his death from heatstroke. The Human Rights Act was his mother’s only way of ensuring that there would be a full investigation into why her son died, not in the heat of battle, but in the crushing heat of a UK army base in Iraq. Such investigations may be inconvenient or embarrassing for public officials, but for grieving families seeking justice and accountability they are crucial. That is why we must oppose any proposals to reduce our human rights protections, be that for soldiers, or any other category of person. We must speak up for the law that protects us all, our Human Rights Act.