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 2: Right to life

The Human Rights Act protects your right to life.

This means that public officials cannot deliberately take your life. Public officials also have to take reasonable steps to protect your life, if they know (or should know) that your life if at real and immediate risk. The Human Rights Act also means that public officials have to fulfill your right to life by investigating when officials may have been involved in a death or failed to act. 

Most of the time, the right to life is an absolute right, which means that it can never be limited or restricted. There are very limited circumstances, however, where police or armed forces personnel may take a person's life in the course of a particular action, which was necessary to protect the lives of others, and this right will not be breached.

In real life: Right to life 

Protects patients at risk of taking their own life

Melanie Rabone was 24 years old and voluntarily admitted herself to a mental health hospital after she had attempted to take her own life. She was assessed as being at high risk of suicide, and whilst on leave from the hospital took her own life.

Her family took a human rights case to court, and the court ruled that the hospital had failed in their duty to protect Melanie’s right to life. The hospital had a duty to take reasonable steps to protect Melanie’s life, including by detaining her under the Mental Health Act to try and prevent her suicide.

(Rabone v Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust, 2012)

Accountability for failings to protect victims of domestic violence

On the 5 August 2009, Joanna Michael from Cardiff called 999 and told the call handler her ex-boyfriend had been to her house and hit her. He left, threatening to come back and kill her. The call operator mistakenly heard that he had threatened to ‘hit’ her. Because the call had gone through to the wrong police service initially, when it was passed to South Wales Police, they did not get the full story and they did not grade the call as immediately urgent. By the time the police arrived at Joanna’s house, she was dead.

Joanna’s family, with the support of Welsh Women’s Aid, went to court and argued that the police had been negligent in failing to respond to her 999 call, and that their failure had breached Joanna’s right to life under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act. This case put domestic violence on the agenda in Wales, and made it clear that domestic violence is a human rights issue.  

(Michael v Chief Constable of South Wales Police, 2015)

Challenging arbitrary use of DNR orders

Andrew was a 51-year old man with Down’s syndrome and dementia. During a hospital stay, he had a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ order (an instruction to the medical team not to attempt resuscitation if he fell unconscious) put on his file without him or his family being consulted. The reasons written on the order by the doctor were: “Down’s syndrome, unable to swallow... bed bound, learning difficulties”.

As Laurie's life was at stake, he was able to challenge this as a risk to his right to life (plus discrimination). He started a human rights legal case but it was settled out of court and the NHS Trust apologised.

(Real-life story)

Accessing life saving treatment 

Bryn was 60 years old and lived in supported living. He had learning disabilities which could make communication difficult. Staff noticed Bryn wasn’t lying down to go to sleep, but was sleeping sitting up in a chair. As this can be an indication of a heart condition, staff at the home called a doctor from the local NHS surgery who came to visit Bryn.

A meeting of people involved in Bryn’s care was called, where the doctor stated that because Bryn 'had a learning disability and no quality of life' he would not organise a heart scan for Bryn. Bryn had an Indepedent Mental Capacity Advocate, who had received training on human rights from BIHR. Bryn's advocate challenged the doctor’s decision at the meeting by raising Bryn’s right to life (and his right to be free from discrimination, protected by Article 14 in the Human Rights Act). The advocate asked the doctor if he would arrange a heart scan if anyone else in the room was in this situation, and the GP said yes he would.

This led to a change in decision and it was agreed that Bryn would have a heart scan.

(Real life example from Solent Mind, participants in BIHR’s Care and Support project)