17 years ago, the Human Rights Act became law in the UK and we think that's worth celebrating!

To mark the occasion, over 17 days we are 'unwrapping' the Human Rights Act - with information & stories, we'll be sharing how the Act works and how it makes a difference. Many of the stories include examples taken from BIHR's work with people, community groups and public services.

Article 5: Right to liberty 

The Human Rights Act protects your right to liberty.

This protects your right to not have extreme restrictions placed on your movement. This means that you have a right to freedom of movement and to not be detained or restricted unreasonably; it is not a right to do whatever you want.

The right to liberty can be restricted when necessary under very specific circumstances, for example detention under the Mental Health Act or being sent to prison after being found guilty of a crime. The specific circumstances when public authorities can restrict your right to liberty are written in the law. 

When the right to liberty is restricted, the appropriate legal safeguards must be followed. For example anyone arrested must be told why (in a way that they understand) and anyone detained must be able to challenge their detention. 

In real life: Right to liberty 

Informal patient challenges not being allowed off ward

Jenny was an informal patient in a hospital (which means she wasn't detained under the Mental Health Act). Staff told her that she was not allowed to go off the ward to visit the shops or go for a coffee. When Jenny’s advocate questioned the hospital staff about this, they said they didn’t feel she was well enough to leave the ward. Jenny’s advocate explained to the staff that Jenny was effectively being unlawfully detained and that this might be a breach of her right to liberty, as protected by the Human Rights Act).

After discussing staff concern’s about her safety, Jenny agreed that a staff member could accompany her off the ward. The situation was then discussed with the ward manager and Jenny left the ward to visit the shops, and was safe.

(Real life example from Mind in Brighton and Hove, a partner organisation on BIHR’s Care and
Support project)

Challenging unlawful deprivation of liberty & making sure people's wishes are heard

Steven is a young man with a learning disability. He lived at home with his father Mark, but went into a local authority support unit for a short stay when Mark was ill. The local authority then kept Steven there for over a year against his and his father’s wishes. When Steven tried to leave the unit after several months, the local authority signed a Deprivation of Liberty Authorisation (intended as safeguard to ensure that the right to liberty isn't restricted more than absolutely necessary in hospitals and care homes). Later, the local authority said they were looking for a long term residential placement for Steven miles away from his father.

Steven and Mark took a human rights case through the courts to challenge this. The court decided that Steven’s right to liberty had been breached because of the delay in making the assessment and because the Deprivation of Liberty assessment had not taken into account Steven and Mark’s wishes. 

(Hillingdon London Borough Council v Neary, 2011)

Challenging discrimination against non-English speakers

A mental health hospital had a practice of detaining asylum seekers who spoke little or no English, under the Mental Health Act, without the use of an interpreter. This meant that the people being detained in the mental health hospital could not understand why they were being detained, or how to challenge it. 

After participating in a BIHR session, members of a user-led mental health befriending scheme used human rights language to successfully challenge this practice. The group spoke with staff at the hospital and explained that because the people being detained were unable to understand why, or how they might challenge their detention, their detention might be unlawful because it wasn’t meeting the safeguards set out in the right to liberty (Article 5). They also argued that it breached the asylum seekers’ right not to be discriminated against on the basis of language.

With accurate and easy to understand information about the Human Rights Act and the hospital’s duties to respect patient rights, the befriending group were able to work with staff to change the policy on interpreters. Now people seeking asylum who are detained have access to the same information as everyone else – a crucial safeguard for anyone with restrictions placed on their liberty.

(Real life example from BIHR, The Human Rights Act: Changing Lives, 2nd edition)