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 8: Right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence 

The Human Rights Act protects your right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence.

There are four key parts of the right, as explained below:

Private life

This right protects:

  • private information, including access to personal information and to have that information confidential
  • wellbeing, including physical and mental health
  • autonomy, which is about having control over your own body and life, and being able to participate in decisions about yourself (eg in your care and treatment)
  • being able to participate in the life of your community

Family life

This means that you have the right to develop family relationships and to maintain contact with your family. 

Home

This is not a right to housing, but a right to respect for the home that you already have. Your right to home, therefore, covers the place that you consider to be your home, such as a care home or a caravan, if you've been living there a long time and have established a connection to that place. This right protects you from your home life being interfered with, eg unlawful surveillance, arbitrary evictions, or being removed from your home to receive health or care services. 

Correspondence 

This right covers all forms of communications, for example letters, emails and phone calls. It protects the right to communicate with people and to have that communication as private. 

This right can be restricted in certain circumstances

The right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence can be restricted in certain circumstances. If a public official needs to interfere with this right, they must show that interference is: 

  1. lawful: there must be a law that allows officials to take that action
  2. legitimate: there must be a legitimate aim the public official is trying to achieve (eg public safety) 
  3. necessary: all alternative ways of achieving the aim must have been considered and the one chosen must be proportionate

All three parts of this test must be met for a public official to justify interfering with your right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence. 

In real life: Right to respect for private and family life

Privacy means police cannot hold DNA data of people found innocent 

When Scott was 11 he was charged with attempted robbery. He was later acquitted and found innocent. However, the police decided to keep his fingerprints and DNA samples. 

Scott thought this was a disproportionate restriction on his right to respect for private life as protected by the Human Rights Act, so he took a human rights case to court. The court ruled that keeping people's DNA records on a criminal register when they had been found innocent did breach the right to respect for private and family life.

(S and Marper v United Kingdom, 2008)

Getting a double bed to share with husband 

Helena, a disabled woman, was told by her occupational therapy department that she needed a special (‘profile’) bed. She was unable to leave her bed and this new arrangement would allow carers to give her bed baths. Helena requested a double bed so that she could continue to sleep next to her husband. The authority refused her request, even though she offered to pay the difference in cost between a single and double bed. A stalemate ensued for 18 months until the woman was advised by the Disability Law Centre to invoke her right to respect for private and family life. Within three hours of putting this argument to the authority, it found enough money to buy the whole of her double profile bed. Writing to Disability Now, the woman explained that ‘It has made a phenomenal difference to my life. If something similar happened in future, I would have no hesitation in using the [Human Rights Act] again’.

(Disability Now, June 2006, p 14.)

Being able to participate in the community as a gay disabled man 

Alfie, a gay disabled man, was being supported by the local authority to participate in social activities. Alfie wanted to visit a gay pub, and asked whether a support worker could accompany him. Alfie's request was denied, even other heterosexual service users were regularly supported to attend pubs and clubs of their choice. Following a BIHR training, Alfie's advocate knew that Alfie had a right to respect for private life, which includes being able to participate in the community. Alfie also has a right not to discriminated against on the grounds of sexual orientation. Alfie's advocate decides to challenge the local authority's decision. 

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

Stopping dawn raids at an accommodation facility for people seeking asylum 

Home office staff began conducting unannounced early morning visits at an accommodation facility for newly arrived asylum seekers. The visits took place at dawn and no interpreters were present. Asylum seekers were woken and made to answer questions. Often those being interviewed had only had a few hours sleep, after arriving at the facility very late at night. A voluntary sector organisation, having received human rights training from BIHR and legal advice from Liberty, challenged this practice on the basis that it interfered with the asylum seekers’ right to respect for private life. They argued that there were other, more dignified ways to verify who was staying at the facility and for how long. The arguments were successful and the Home Office ceased the practice of these unannounced dawn visits.

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

Challenging use of CCTV in a residential unit

Tim and Sylvia were a couple who both had a learning disability. They had a young child and social services
placed them in a residential unit temporarily so that their parenting skills could be assessed. There were CCTV cameras in their rooms, including in their bedroom, even though the baby slept in a separate nursery.

In their conversations with social services Tim and Sylvia challenged this by talking about their right to respect for private and family life and the impact the CCTV cameras were having on them. After discussion, social services agreed to turn the cameras off in their bedroom at night time. 

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

Protecting privacy in determining whether a family lived in the school catchment area

A council in Dorset spied on the Paton family to see if they lived in the right school catchment area. Whilst the family had lived in the same house for a number of years, the council officials watched their house, made notes, took photographs, and tailed the family on the school run for more than three weeks. 

The family didn't realise that they were being spied on, until they were told at a meeting with the council. Using the right to private and family life, the Paton family took a case to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. The Tribunal agreed that the council had breached the family's rights, and said it had not been necessary to use surveillance powers. 

Jenny Paton said, "[I]n my view the most vulnerable people in the community should be protected. You can’t just have human rights just for some people and not for everybody. In my case – and I’m sure in many other cases – it has come to my aid. We wouldn’t have won the case without it.”

(Paton v Poole Borough Council, 2010)

In real life: Right to respect for home and correspondence

Avoiding relocation & staying together as a community

Sandeep lived in residential accommodation in Newport Pagnell with David and Sally, but they were funded by Hackney Council, their home authority. Hackney Council were going through budget cuts and felt it would be cheaper to bring people to units in their area, even though Sandeep, David and Sally had been settled outside of Hackney for several years.

Sandeep was supported by his Independent Mental Health Advocate to argue that their relocation might interfere with their right to respect for home and family life as they were living as a community or ‘family’ together and had a right to be consulted about the re-location. Following this negotiation using the Human Rights Act, the council decided not to move them. 

(Real life example from BIHR, The Difference It Makes: Putting Human Rights at the Heart of Health and Social Care, 2014

Keeping medical correspondence between patients and doctors private

Edward was 46 years old and serving a prison sentence. Prior to his imprisonment he suffered a brain haemorrhage and underwent surgery. He needed constant monitoring and had to go to hospital every 6 months for a check-up with a specialist. The prison doctor opened and read the letters between Edward and his specialist on the orders of the prison governor.

Edward wanted his medical communications to remain private, and took a human rights case to court to challenge this. The court decided that communications between patients and doctors deserve special protection because of the risk that might be posed to a patient’s life if they do not feel that they can be open with a doctor. As Edward only wanted to correspond with a single doctor, the prison could easily take steps to verify the identity of the doctor. The court decided that reading Edward’s medical correspondence was a disproportionate interference with his right to respect for correspondence. It was agreed that the doctor would clearly mark the envelope of his correspondence with Edward to allow the prison to identify it as private. 

(Szuluk v UK, 2009)