Urban legends and reality


In short, no, human rights do not prevent wanted posters. This is one of those recurring urban legends that seems to rear its head every now and then in media reporting and political commentary. For example, this week The Sun (12 August 2015) reported:


        “COPS have been blasted for refusing to release details of suspected murderers and a rapist - because it would breach their human rights.”


       “Police chiefs say "data protection rights" outweigh public interest. But Khalid Mahmood, Labour MP for Perry Barr, Birmingham, said: "This shows we are going backwards. Instead of protecting victims, this has become about protecting criminals."”


The Human Rights Act does not set victims against criminals, or criminals against victims. Human rights protect victims when the criminal justice system fails them, for example when the police fail to respond appropriately to victim’s reports of crimes, such as the case of Joanna Michael who ended up dead after calling the police or the women attacked by John Worboys (the “black cab rapist”) who were failed by the police despite reporting the crimes.


The criteria for whether you have human rights is whether you are human; it’s not whether you are a “good” human or a bad “human”. This can be challenging, but the fact that human rights are universal and apply to everyone is the definition of human rights.


The HRA: Enabling restriction of human rights


Our Human Rights Act protects everyone’s human rights all of the time, but it is a highly practical law which helps us navigate the complexities of everyday life. Under the Human Rights Act, most of our human rights can be restricted to make sure the rights of others are protected. So for example, if the police have reason to suspect you of committing a crime or presenting a danger to others, your right to respect for privacy can be limited in order to protect the rights of society.


The actual law on the issue


The two following cases show how our human rights law actually enables the police to balance privacy and the right to protect others


Wanted posters: restricting privacy to investigate crimes

In 2015, the UK’s Supreme Court dealt with the case of JR38, an 18 year old from Northern Ireland. When he was 14, the police had published a picture of him at a riot, throwing stones. This was the last stage of a thorough investigative process aimed at identifying rioters. He was not charged for his involvement in the riot. He argued that publishing his image was a breach of his right to privacy but the Supreme Court found that although the right to privacy had been interfered with (based on his age) this interference was justified because of the importance of detecting and prosecuting offenders and preventing future crime.  (Case: JR38 (Northern Ireland): children on wanted posters 2015)


Protecting privacy in public places

In 1995, Gregory Peck, who had depression, was caught by CCTV attempting to harm himself with a kitchen knife. The police were called and he was taken to a place of safety. But the CCTV footage was later released to a local TV station, showing how the police had resolved the incident. Gregory’s face had not been covered or obscured and he was distressed by his identity being broadcast. As this was before the Human Rights Act 1998 and so there was no specific protection of privacy in UK law, the UK courts rejected his case. This meant Gregory had to ask the European Court of Human Rights to look at the issue. The Court said that even though Gregory was in a public place, he had not broken any laws and could not have expected his image to be shared so widely. His right to respect for privacy, which is protected by Article 8 in the Human Rights Act, had therefore been breached. (Peck v UK 2003)


What these cases show is that you have the right to respect for privacy when going about your private business and engaging in your private life. When you commit or are suspected of committing a crime, your privacy can be restricted to protect the public and to bring you to justice.


What does this mean for the headlines?


If a 14 year old who was never charged with the crime can have their picture published, then our human rights law makes it clear restricting the privacy of those suspected of committing murder and rape is precisely the kind of action the police can take to protect the wider public and investigate crime.


There are lots of reasons why the police forces don’t publish wanted posters, for example because they do not want to compromise ongoing investigations. Far from preventing publication of wanted posters, our Human Rights Act provides the very tool for the police to show they are making good decisions, restricting one person’s right to privacy to protect the wider public.


The wanted poster issue is part of a widespread lack of knowledge about human rights and how our Human Rights Act works. Misunderstanding of human rights laws can lead to bad decision making and wrongly-placed blame on the law.  (Conversely BIHR’s work with public authorities, including the police, shows how understanding human rights in everyday practice is vital to ensure fair decision making for everybody). Such poor decisions then feed into and off of inaccuracies in media and political commentary, building momentum behind these stories.


So the next time someone makes the same mistake as The Sun did this week, direct them to this blog. And you might jokingly also throw in that if such reports were true, then someone best have a word with the BBC’s Crime Watch!


If you think that the Human Rights Act strikes the right balance in protecting the rights of everyone, get involved with our campaign – Together for Human Rights: protect what protects us all. 

By Sanchita Hosali and Natalie Threlfall