2020 is now nearly over, and for most of us we will be glad to see the back of it. The Coronavirus pandemic has impacted us all but has often hit those in already vulnerable situations even harder. We have all witnessed just how important our rights are, many of us have felt sharply what family rights mean, our wellbeing has been tested, we have faced restrictions on our liberty, and measures which have discriminated.

Throughout this year we have also seen some really important human rights legal cases. Here are 3 of the cases that caught our attention and why:


Polluted Air and the Right to Life

In December this year, a Coroner's Court found that air pollution "made a material contribution" to the death a of nine year old girl, Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, in 2013. Ella and her family lived next to one of London’s busiest roads. In 2013, Ella died after being hospitalised nearly 30 times in the previous 3 years for asthma related issues. Ella’s family have been campaigning since her death for recognition that the dangerous levels of air pollution in the local area contributed to Ella’s death.

Jocelyn Cockburn, the lawyer represented Ella’s family, argued that the government had failed in its duty under the right to life (Article 2 of the Human Rights Act), by not protecting the public from dangerously high levels of air pollution. She stated:

“I think it entirely possible in relation to those people who have been affected by air pollution that they could use the Human Rights Act to try and enforce their right to breathe clean air … and there may be other legal avenues in relation to forcing the government to take steps to reduce air pollution levels or to inform the public.”

This case, thought to be the first of its kind in the UK, and possibly the world, to explicitly link exposure to toxic air with an individual death could have far reaching effects. Next year the Coroner is expected to write a Prevention of Future Deaths report (a document coroners write if they believe action should be taken to prevent more deaths) which could outline recommendations for the government and address the potential Article 2 breach. The case also shows the power of the Human Rights Act to protect economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to a healthy environment within pre-existing rights such as the right to life.


Destitution and the Right to Be Free from Inhuman and Degrading Treatment

This year the High Court found that the Home Office was in breach of its duties under the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3 of the Human Rights Act) by failing to protect destitute people against inhuman and degrading treatment caused by homelessness.

The five people involved in this case were each accepted by the Home Office to be entitled to accommodation and financial support because they otherwise faced destitution and inhuman or degrading treatment that would breach their human rights. However, each person was left homeless for long periods and had to turn to the help of charities, the church or well-wishers for food and somewhere to sleep (sometimes in hallways). Each of the five people were vulnerable as they had various mental and physical conditions.

The court found that this was due to “wholesale failures to monitor the implementation and operation of contracts awarded to private companies are found to have led to lengthy and unlawful delays in the provision of accommodation and support for destitute people”.

The case is important as it shows that the government cannot merely “contact out” human rights duties. If, as in the case here, they have awarded a contract to private companies to carry out services they still have a duty to monitor the implementation and operation of these contracts to ensure that people are not in a situation that is amounting to inhuman and degrading treatment.

The Right to Private and Family Life and Recognising the Importance of Sibling Relationships

In June, the Supreme Court ruled on a case where children’s rights lawyers argued that the Children’s Hearings Scotland system was incompatible with the right to private and family life (Article 8 of the Human Rights Act) as it did not recognise siblings as a relevant person in the proceedings. Children’s Hearings are responsible for dealing with children and young people in Scotland who are under 16, and in some cases under 18, who commit offences or who are in need of care and protection. A “relevant person” can be involved in decisions made about the child or young person at the centre of the hearing.

However, the Supreme Court found that, following adaptations to children’s hearings since the start of these proceedings (which had taken almost 3 years), the requirements of the right to private and family life were met in relation to siblings and other family members. It emphasised that to make effective the rights of brothers and sisters, it was necessary for the relevant public authorities to be aware of those interests and that siblings be informed of the nature of proceedings concerning their brother or sister and their rights in relation to those proceedings.

Although the Court did not agree with the sibling’s lawyers that the Children’s Hearings Scotland system was incompatible with the right to private and family life, this was still a very important case in terms of recognising the importance of sibling relationships. According to the lawyers involved, the case “has led the way in Scotland to a wider understanding of the importance of sibling relationships and the need for brothers and sisters to be involved in decision making. It acknowledges that the system has developed over the duration of the case because of these legal challenges and this should result in more involvement of siblings in children’s hearings.”

Indeed, the Children (Scotland) Act, passed in October 2020, includes a strengthening of duties in relation to brothers and sisters for care experienced young people. Placing a duty on local authorities to promote contact between looked after children and siblings.

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