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 3: Right to be free from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment 

The Human Rights Act protects your right to be free from inhuman or degrading treatment.

This right protects against very serious abuse and neglect. It protects you from treatment that causes intense physical or mental suffering, or causes you to feel fear or anguish or extreme humiliation. For treatment to be 'inhuman or degrading' and protected by this right, it must have a very serious impact on you. 

This right also protects your right to be free from torture

Under the law, torture has a very specific definition. Torture is about someone who works for government or a public authority deliberately causing severe physical or mental suffering to someone for a specific purpose, for example, to get information. Inhuman or degrading treatment, on the other hand, doesn't have to be for a deliberate or for a purpose - it can be caused by neglect. This part is especially relevant in everyday life and the experiences people may have in health and care, education, social services, with the police and emergency services.  

Public officials have a duty not to torture or treat people in an inhuman or degrading way, but they also have to take reasonable steps to protect you when they know (or should know) that someone is at risk of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. This includes taking positive action when someone known to be as at risk of serious harm from another person such as a family member. There is also a duty to investigate when officials may have been involved in torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. 

This right is an 'absolute right', which means it cannot be restricted or interfered with by public officials under any circumstances. There can be no legal justification for torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. 

In real life: Right to be free from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment 

Holding the police accountable 

Zach has autism & epilepsy. When he was 16 he visited a swimming pool and became fixated on the water. Worried Zach would jump in, the pool manager called the police. The police arrived and grabbed his jacket, so Zach jumped in the pool. Lifeguards pulled him out, and 5 police officers restrained Zach, put him in handcuffs and leg restraints. Zach was put in the back of a caged police van. He soiled himself in distress. 

Zach's family took the case to court. The court decided that the police had violated Zach's right to be free from inhuman & degrading treatment. 

(ZH v The Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis, 2013)

Reversing a hospital decision

Lynne has a learning disability and lives in an NHS hospital. She needs to use incontinence pads overnight, but the hospital decided to stop providing them. The hospital's decision meant that Lynne was often left in soiled sheets until morning. This was extremely distressing and embarrassing for Lynne, was affecting her skin and she thought she was being treated in this way as a form of punishment.

Lynne and her advocate raised this as a risk to the right to be free from degrading treatment. As a result, the hospital re-instated the use of incontinence pads so that Lynne would not face hours of discomfort and embarrassment each night.

(Example from BIHR’s project Care and Support: A Human Rights Approach to Advocacy)

Accessing much-needed physical health treatment

Moira was in her 40s and had suffered with severe tinnitus and deafness in one ear for three years. This caused an incessant loud noise in her head which was having a significant impact on her mental health. Moira’s consultant thought that she could benefit from a cochlear implant and was willing to perform the operation but the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) repeatedly refused to fund it. Moira and her family were really upset by the situation. Moira felt that her life was no longer worth living, and at one stage attempted to take her own life.

Using her right to be free from inhuman & degrading treatment, Moira told her GP that it would be inhumane to leave her suffering when treatment was available. The GP eventually managed to secure funding for her treatment from an alternative source. Moira and her family were overjoyed. Moira felt that she was getting her life back and her children were getting their mum back.

(Example from BIHR’s project Care and Support: A Human Rights Approach to Advocacy)