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Human Rights Act 'absolutely key' to big justice fights of last 20 years

The Human Rights Act has been absolutely key to the big justice fights of the last 20 years Amnesty said today, on the 20th anniversary of the act receiving Royal Assent, as the organisation published a list of 20 cases involving the act.

The Human Rights Act is the principal law protecting human rights in the UK. It incorporates into UK law 16 rights from the European Convention of Human Rights – the treaty drafted after the Second World War as part of the promise of ‘never again’. From then on, countries were committed to respect, protect and fulfil people’s fundamental rights in domestic courts in the UK.

Previous to the act being passed, people in the UK had access to their rights only through the Convention and were often required to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to enforce them. Now those rights are part of UK law.

Despite the clear benefits for human rights in the UK of the legislation, there have been repeated threats to remove or repeal the act by successive politicians.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s Director, said:

“From Hillsborough to the Mid-Staffs hospital scandal, the Human Rights Act has been absolutely key to the big justice fights of the last 20 years.

“It’s the unsung hero of UK life, holding powerful people and institutions to account when ordinary people are let down.

“We should celebrate the way the act defends all of us - especially the most vulnerable - and resist any attempts to dilute or remove those protections.”

The following cases all involve the Human Rights Act, or – in the case of the last two - could very likely in the future result in cases which are brought under the act: 

  1. 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 literally blamed, and a proper inquest wasn’t held. 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.


  1. Mid-Staffs and NHS negligence – Families affected by the scandal have been able to launch 119  legal claims against the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust using the Human Rights Act. The claims followed the first report into Stafford Hospital which estimated that as many as 1,200 people had died unnecessarily at the hospital between 2005 and 2008 due to the “appalling” standards of care provided. The families were able to rely on the investigative obligation inherent in the right to life (Article 2 of the act) as relatives’ lives were lost. This requires public authorities to ensure there is a proper inquiry, involving the relatives. They were able to use the act to force the government to hold a thorough public inquiry into what went wrong, which made numerous recommendations to prevent anything similar happening elsewhere. Frank and Janet Robinson are two such relatives; they are the parents of John Moore-Robinson who died after doctors at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital failed to diagnose a ruptured spleen. His parents later used the Human Rights Act to demand a second, proper inquest, and uncover the truth about what happened.


  1. Equal rights for gay 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 in his favour, when they decided that the Human Rights Act required courts to read the phrase “surviving spouse” in the Rent Act as including the surviving partner of a gay couple, well before gay marriage was legal. The act requires legislation to be read in a way that is compatible with human rights “so far as it is possible to do so”.


  1. Proper equipment for soldiers serving in the army - Snatch Land Rovers, nicknamed “mobile coffins”, were developed to transport troops in Northern Ireland. They were subsequently deployed in the Afghan and Iraq conflicts. Families from some of the 37 whose sons and daughters died in Snatch Land Rovers brought claims against the government, mainly under the Human Rights Act. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that soldiers don’t lose their rights when fighting overseas, eventually leading the Ministry of Defence to apologise in 2017 to the mother of one of the soldiers who died. 


  1. 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. Using Article 4 of the Human Rights Act, no slavery or forced labour, human rights organisation Liberty forced the police to reopen the case and Patience’s employer was finally prosecuted.


  1. 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 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. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, which intervened in the case, argued that being able to make a decision about whether a life is worth living is a fundamental right protected under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.


  1. Freedom of the press –the Milton Keynes Citizen’s reporter 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. After being arrested and spending 19 months on police bail, the case against her collapsed after the judge ruled that the police had breached her Article 10 freedom of expression rights which protect journalists and their sources, and the evidence was not admissible.


  1. Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland - during the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland, thousands of people lost their lives and many more were injured. The European Convention of Human Rights, and its guarantor the Human Rights Act, underpins 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.


  1. 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 death.


  1. Elderly couple separated by council - 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 and a public campaign was launched to encourage social services to think again. As a result, 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.


  1. Equal rights for unmarried couples - Siobhan McLaughlin had four children with John Adams, a groundsman, but despite living with him for two decades was denied a £2,000 lump-sum bereavement payment when he died in 2014. Her application for a widowed-parent allowance, which could have meant up to £118 per week, 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 article 14 (non-discrimination) and article 8 (private and family life) of the Human Rights Act.


  1. Disabled women left bed-bound by inadequate 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. It was degrading and left her with a desperately difficult life. Jan took legal action under the Human Rights Act to secure better care from the council and won. She was able to enjoy a better quality of life because of the case and became a committed campaigner for human rights and the Human Rights Act until her death last year.


  1. Asperger’s sufferer facing deportation to the US - 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 to face trial. If convicted, he would have faced 60 years in jail. In 2012, the then Home Secretary Theresa May 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. Gary was spared extradition by the Human Rights Act.


  1. ‘Black cab rapist’ John Worboys’ victims challenge police failure to investigate - two victims of John Worboys challenged the police over their failure 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. Due to what the court said were significant errors, officers failed to charge Worboys at that stage.


  1. Deepcut army barracks suicides -  Anne-Marie Ellement was a military police officer who killed herself as a result of bullying and ‘work-related despair’ in 2011. 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.


  1. Police retaining DNA and fingerprints 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.


  1. Right to marry regardless of religious 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.


  1. 19 year-old killed by racist cell mate - Zahid Mubarek had been sentenced to 90 days' detention for theft. Inside prison, he was described as a “model prisoner”. On 21 March 2000, five hours before he was due to be released, Zahid was beaten to death by Robert Stewart, a racist with a history of violence, with whom he shared a cell. Stewart later admitted the murder and drew a swastika on the wall. 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 that the investigations surrounding Zahid’s death were not sufficient to meet the standard required by the right to life under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act.

Two of the most high-profile rights cases over the last year have also raised issues which the Human Rights Act sheds important light on:


  1. Grenfell fire - there are many serious human rights questions to be answered about the role of public officials in this tragedy both at a local level – such as why the concerns of residents about safety went unheard or ignored, the design and recent refurbishment of the building, the lack of local fire-safety procedures - and at a national level – in terms of changes to fire service powers and regulations on building safety. Four of the Human Rights Act rights are particularly relevant to Grenfell: right to life (Article 2), the right not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3), right to respect for private and family life (Article 8) and the right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions (Article 1) These rights have been used by people involved in other tragedies to hold public officials to account for loss of life, but also loss of homes and possessions. The independent watchdog the Equality and Human Rights Commission is intending to carry out its own inquiry into whether central and local government met their obligations under the Human Rights Act in respect to Grenfell, to ensure the right lessons are learned. 


  1. The Windrush scandal - leading human rights law firm Leigh Day has said it is preparing a potential group action case for the Windrush victims against the Home Office. They will be arguing that the policies and practices of the Home Office that caused such harm to people long settled in this country were discriminatory and unlawful as they were in breach of the Human Rights Act for being ‘inhuman and degrading’ and contrary to Article 3 and Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.


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