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The right to be free from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment

The right to be free from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment is protected by Article 3 of the Human Rights Act.

Key information

Last updated:  09 November 2022

This right often comes up in: 
Death and end of life, disability rights including SEND, ending violence against women, health, care & social work, housing and independent living, mental health & capacity, migration and refugee rights, privacy, data and surveillance, safeguarding people and welfare support

Absolute right

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This right can be divided into two parts, the right to be free from torture and the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment.

The 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.

The right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment

Inhuman or degrading treatment, on the other hand, doesn't have to be 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, care or education settings, social services, with the police or emergency services. This is the part of the right that we usually focus on at BIHR.

How might this right be relevant to my life?

There is no list of what is “inhuman and degrading treatment”. Because everybody is different, what is inhuman and degrading treatment for one person might not be inhuman and degrading for another person. It all depends on each person and how treatment affects them. Things that should be taken into consideration are your age, your sex, gender-specific treatment and your mental and physical health.

This right protects against very serious harm. Less severe harm which has a less serious impact is protected by the right to respect for private life (Article 8).

Inhuman and degrading treatment is treatment which:

    • Makes you very frightened or worried

    • Causes you a lot of pain

    • Makes you feel worthless or hopeless

Some examples when your right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment might be at risk include: 

    • Serious harm arising from a lack of care/support or self-neglect.

    • Severe abuse or ill- treatment by others (which could include practitioners, family members, carers).

    • If the police (or other public service) are not conducting a proper inquiry into behaviour that puts you at risk of severe harm.

    • If you are street homeless, destitute and there are exceptional personal factors (for example, you are pregnant).

Can my right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment be restricted by a public official?

No. 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. This means that if someone is in a situation which is amounting to inhuman and degrading, the public services involved have to act straight away to deal with this situation so it is no longer inhuman and degrading.

What duties do public officials have?

To respect your right:

This means that public officials should never treat people in an inhuman or degrading way.

To protect your right:

This means that public officials should take reasonable steps to protect anyone they know (or should know) is at risk of inhuman or degrading treatment. This includes taking positive action when someone is known to be at risk of serious harm from another person such as a family member.

To fulfil your right:

This means that when things go wrong, they should be investigated and steps should be taken to try and stop the same thing happening again. For example, there must be an investigation when public officials may have been involved in inhuman or degrading treatment.