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23 reasons why we need the Human Rights Act

Image of protest that reads: 23 reasons why we need the Human Rights Act
© Credits: Shane Aldendorff (Pexels)

[Trigger warning: contains references to racial violence, domestic abuse and human trafficking]

Blog written by Tim Gee, Campaign Manager for Human Rights in the UK 

The Human Rights Act is an invisible safety net for all of us, working to ensure our rights are respected, and a crucial means of defence for the most vulnerable.

It also turns 23 years old this month!

To celebrate its birthday, check out 23 times in which the Human Rights Act played a role in helping justice prevail: 

 
1. Challenging racist violence

 Zahid Mubarek was sentenced to 90 days' detention for theft and in prison was described as a “model prisoner”. Five hours before he was due to be released, he was beaten to death by a racist with a history of violence, with whom he was made to share a cell. The Mubarek family fought for an independent public inquiry using the Human Rights Act under the right to life (Article 2) to investigate deaths where the state might be implicated. A court found in the family’s favour. 

2. Protecting freedom of the press

Journalist Sally Murrer was bugged by Thames Valley Police under police spying powers. They also viewed her bank records and text messages and filmed her at home because of their suspicions over her conversations with a police source. She always maintained her stories were in the public interest and that her sources and correspondence should have been private. Based on the Human Rights Act, a judge ruled that the police had breached her freedom of expression rights which protect journalists and their sources.

3. Proper responsibility for the Spycops Scandal

 In September 2021, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled that a female activist who had been deceived into a long-term sexual relationship with an undercover male police officer, had been subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, sex discrimination and violations of her rights to private and family life, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association. Under the Human Rights Act, the Tribunal ruled that this was ‘not just a case about a renegade police officer who took advantage of his undercover deployment to indulge his sexual proclivities’, but rather that the police leadership were responsible for a ‘formidable list’ of severe human rights violations as a result of institutional failings by senior officers in their authorising and supervising the undercover operation.

4. Challenging Do Not Resuscitate notices

Following a complaint brought by relatives of patients who had had Do Not Resuscitate notices placed on their notes without their consent, a commission found that, based on the Human Rights Act, patients must be told if doctors consider that CPR should not be carried out on the grounds that it would not work; they have the right to a second opinion; and that where they do not have the capacity, their family or advocate should be consulted.

5. Winning an inquiry into the Hillsborough football disaster

After 27 years of fighting for justice, the Hillsborough families were able to use the Human Rights Act to uncover the truth about how their 96 loved ones died. After the crush at Hillsborough football ground in 1989, the fans were blamed, and the inquest that followed was seriously deficient. The Human Rights Act changed that. It enabled the families of those who died to get a proper inquest, one where they could tell their loved ones’ stories and which revealed the truth: that mistakes made by the police and others led to their deaths.

6. Protecting serving UK soldiers

Snatch Land Rovers were developed to transport troops in Northern Ireland but were later used in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. They were so unsuited and unsafe for this role that they became nicknamed “mobile coffins”. Families of some of the 37 men and women who died in Snatch Land Rovers used the Human Rights Act to challenge the government. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that soldiers don’t lose their rights when fighting overseas, prompting an apology from the Ministry of Defence. Snatch Landrovers are no longer used.  

7. Underpinning the Good Friday Agreement

Following the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland the European Convention on Human Rights, and its guarantor the Human Rights Act - underpin the Good Friday peace agreement. Victims of the conflict and their relatives have warned that removing the Human Rights Act would threaten the peace agreement.

8. Equal rights for unmarried couples

Siobhan McLaughlin had four children with her partner, but despite living with him for two decades was denied a £2,000 lump-sum bereavement payment when he died. Her application for a widowed-parent allowance, was also refused. She challenged this using the Human Rights Act. The Supreme Court ruled that to deny a widow bereavement benefits because she and her partner of 23 years were unmarried was discriminatory and a breach of the Human Rights Act.

9. Protecting serving soldiers (again)

In 2011, Anne-Marie Ellement was a military police officer who tragically took her own life as a result of bullying and ‘work-related despair’. An inquest failed to investigate the circumstances of her death. Years later, using the Human Rights Act, Anne-Marie’s sisters secured a fresh inquest relying on the right to life, and a rape investigation under the right to freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. As a result a trial took place in which two former soldiers were acquitted, but the MOD announced it would establish a complaints ombudsman to investigate complaints made by troops.

10. Allowing elderly couples to stay together

Mr and Mrs Driscoll had lived together for over 65 years. Unable to walk unaided, Mr Driscoll relied on his wife to help him move around. She was blind and herself relied on her husband. When Mr Driscoll was moved into a residential care home, Mrs Driscoll wanted to move to the home with her husband but was told she didn’t meet the criteria. This was a clear breach of the couple's right to a family life as protected by the Human Rights Act. Following a campaign, Mrs Driscoll’s needs were re-assessed and the couple were reunited – setting an example to cite for elderly couples who want to remain together in a care home.

11. Protecting serving soldiers (yet again)

In 2020 an independent judge-led review into the military justice system made recommendations to improve the investigation and prosecution of serious sexual offences within the armed services, but the government refused to implement them. Three servicewomen who had been victims of sexual assault by servicemen in the UK used the Human Rights Act to launch a judicial review of the Ministry of Defence’s refusal. In response the MoD agreed to think again. This resulted in a clause being added to the Armed Forces Bill currently going through Parliament, which it is hoped will increase the effectiveness of investigations and prosecutions in this area. 

12. Right to marry according to beliefs

In 2005, Karen and Martin became the first couple in Britain to have a legally-recognised humanist wedding. Until then, couples who chose a humanist ceremony had to hold a second, civil ceremony to give their marriages legal status. Using the Human Rights Act, humanists in Scotland persuaded the Registrar General that refusing to recognise their weddings amounted to discriminating against them because of their beliefs.

13. Helping ensure funerals accord with beliefs 

Under Jewish and Islamic law, bodies must be buried on the day of death or as soon as possible afterwards. However, a Senior Coroner whose jurisdiction is home to large communities of orthodox Jews and Muslims was operating a policy that barred religious reasons from being taken into consideration when deciding whether or not to expedite a case. On the basis of the Human Rights Act, in 2018 the High Court ruled that this was discriminatory and contrary to Jewish and Muslim people’s right to freedom of religion. The coronor must take all relevant considerations into account, including religious reasons, when prioritising cases.

14. Challenging police failure to investigate sexual violence

Two victims of the ‘black cab rapist’ John Worboys challenged the police over their failure to properly to investigate the case. The Supreme Court ruled that the police had failed to carry out an effective investigation into the serial sex attacker, breaching the victims’ rights under article 3 (the prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment). The claim was brought by two of Worboys’ earliest victims, who reported attacks to the police in 2003 and 2007, after which there were many further attacks.

15. Justice for a murdered mother

Celia Peachey’s mother Maria was murdered by her violent ex-partner, despite repeatedly asking the police for help. Celia used the Human Rights Act to hold the police to account for their catalogue of failings in protecting her, and in investigating her mother’s death.

16. Challenging modern-day slavery and trafficking

Patience Asuquo was brought to the UK as a domestic worker and nanny. For two-and-a-half years she was physically and mentally abused. She was never paid and her employer withheld her passport. Patience eventually managed to escape – only to be met with police disinterest. Following a challenge using Article 4 of the Human Rights Act - no slavery or forced labour - the police reopened the case and Patience’s employer was finally prosecuted.

17. Ensuring proper care from the NHS

Following reports which estimated that as many as 1,200 people had died unnecessarily at Stafford hospital between 2005 and 2008 due to the “appalling” standards of care provided, affected families were able to launch 119 legal claims against the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust using the Human Rights Act. One of these families were Frank and Janet Robinson the parents of John Moore-Robinson who died after doctors at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital failed to diagnose a ruptured spleen. This forced the government to hold a thorough public inquiry into what went wrong, which made numerous recommendations to prevent anything similar happening elsewhere.

18. Winning dignified care provision

 Jan Sutton had multiple sclerosis. For years, Jan’s local council only paid for carers to make a limited number of short 30-minute visits to her home. They would help Jan wash, dress and use the toilet at those times, but the rest of the time she was confined to her bed. Jan took legal action under the Human Rights Act to secure better care from the council and won. She became a committed campaigner for human rights and the Human Rights Act for the rest of her life.

19. Protecting an Asperger’s sufferer from deportation

 Gary McKinnon is a British man with Asperger’s, who was accused in 2002 of hacking into NASA and Pentagon computer systems while searching for information on UFOs. Instead of allowing him to be tried in the UK, the US government attempted to have Gary extradited to the USA, where if convicted, he could have faced 60 years in jail. The Home Secretary announced that the threat to Gary’s health was so high that sending him to trial in the USA would be incompatible with the UK’s responsibility to protect his human rights.

20. Protecting the privacy of innocent people

When a 12-year-old boy and a middle-aged woman were arrested but then had all charges against them dropped, the police refused to destroy the DNA samples and fingerprint records they’d taken. In both cases, the Human Rights Act helped them challenge that. The court found that their privacy had been breached and that police policy was disproportionate.

21. Helping parents care for their children

When five-year old Cameron Mathieson was in hospital with a life-threatening condition, his parents needed to temporarily give up work to care for him. The Department for Work and Pensions, however, refused to provide Disability Living Allowance for any more than 84 days. His parents challenged this in the Supreme Court, using the human rights act to successfully argue that the policy was unjustifiably discriminatory. Following the Supreme Court judgment the 84 day policy was changed, which means that other families who would otherwise be unable to afford to visit and support their children, are now able to do so.

22. Protecting children’s health

The mother of a five-year old boy, born premature with resultant respiratory health problems, brought a case under the Human Rights Act against the Environment Agency for failing to do enough to stop the ‘Silverdale Stink’ - hydrogen sulphide levels from a local landfill site breaching World Health Organisation guidelines. After seeing evidence that the toxic fumes coming from the site would have a lifelong detrimental effect on the boy’s future respiratory health and dramatically shorten his life expectancy, the High Court ruled that the Environment Agency would have to bring in a more effective programme of measures to bring the toxic emissions down to internationally recognised safety levels.

23. Winning equal housing rights for same sex couples

Juan Godin-Mendoza is a gay man who proved that he had as much right to take over a protected tenancy after the death of his partner as the survivor of a married or cohabiting heterosexual couple. The Supreme Court ruled that the Human Rights Act required courts to read the phrase “surviving spouse” in the Rent Act as including the surviving partner of a same sex couple, well before same sex marriage was legal.
 


Right now, Human Rights in the UK are at risk. A new Bill giving police sweeping powers - including additional powers to shut down peaceful protests - is going through Parliament.

This Bill is part of a worrying trend of assaults on human rights laws and protections in the UK. In short we need your help. Take action here and call on our Prime Minister to stop the assault on our freedoms.
 

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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