The European Convention forbids signatory states from opting out of this right and imposes these duties:
Not to take life save in exceptional, lawful circumstances such as a riot or in time of war
To properly and openly investigate deaths for which the state might be responsible
To protect life by putting in place a legal and administrative system that provides effective deterrence against threats
An “operational” (proactive) duty in certain circumstances to take positive steps to prevent the death of an individual who is under “real and immediate risk” when a state agency “knew or ought to have known” at the time of the risk. Osman v. UK 23452/94
Death Penalty: The European Convention Protocol 1(3) (1983) prohibits the death penalty in all circumstances and the UK ratified this in 2004 when amending the Human Rights Act.
All cases below involve state organisations so the HR Act requirement for compliance with the Convention rights applies for each.
- Middleton: Suicide in state custody
Colin Middleton killed himself in his cell in 1999, having been 17 years in prison for a murder committed when he was age 14. There had been signs that all was not well, e.g. the previous day his cell curtains remained closed. Inquest law at the time allowed only a simple verdict (death by hanging), that took no account of the context of the death or of the question of possible neglect by the agencies in charge. The inquest jury informally told the coroner they felt this verdict was too narrow. His mother felt the same and took her case to court and eventually to the House of Lords. In the light of the Right to Life’s requirement about deaths in state control, and also of HR Act Section 6 requirement that state officials work in compliance with the Convention Rights they ordered a fresh inquest. Britain’s senior judge, Lord Bingham said:
“… the word “how” (the person died) is not simply to be interpreted as meaning ‘by what means’ but rather ‘by what means and in what circumstances’.Middleton v. Somerset w. Coroner, UKHL 2004 (10) para. 34.
Under this case law families whose relatives died in state control can request this type of “Article 2” inquest that brings to light the full facts … and where“…those who have lost their relative may at least have the satisfaction of knowing that lessons learned from his death may save the lives of others”. Amin v. Home Sec. 2003 (51) para. 31
In fact the recent second Hillsborough Inquiry was a set of 92 Article 2 inquests. It took the HR Act to drive such helpful inquests, including allowing verdicts of neglect by state agencies, both aspects since being recognised in statute law in the Coroners and justice Act 2009.
- Mental health and the NHS; state’s proactive duty of care
Mrs. Savage had a long history of mental health problems including “command voices” that ordered her to kill herself. In 2001 she was sectioned for her own protection and treatment. She was moved around closed and open facilities in various hospitals and back onto the closed ward at her local hospital where in July 2005 she slipped out , walked two miles to a train line and killed herself.
Her daughter took her mother’s death to court on Right to Life grounds. The hospital trust argued that the daughter must prove the hospital’s gross negligence, i.e. that it was beyond reasonable doubt that staff behaviour killed Mrs. Savage. However the Appeal Court argued that mental health patients in hospital are in the state’s control just as much as prisoners, so where staff either know or should know that a patient’s life is at “… real and immediate risk” (Osman v SSHD, ECtHR 1998) there is a special proactive duty to take all reasonable steps to prevent it. The House of Lords agreed and returned the case to the High Court for a retrial. There the judge documented the risk factors including the high frequency of command voices and of absconding, and ruled that hospital practices had violated Mrs. Savage’s Right to Life. http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2010/865.html
In 2012 the UK Supreme Court extended this proactive duty to voluntary mental health patients who show a realistic risk of suicide: Rabone V Pennine NHS Trust (2012), So Article 2 imposes a general duty on NHS mental health services to employ competent staff and use systems of work that protect the lives of inmates.
- Police and prevention / cause of death: state’s proactive duty.
Various legal immunities strongly protect the police from prosecution for either willful or unwillful neglect, e.g. the “public policy immunity” which operates in cases where imposing a very wide responsibility on the police would be simply unsustainable. These immunities have maintained a high threshold when Article 2 claims are made against the police and in fact even the European Court of Human Rights drew back from declaring an Article 2 violation on the UK for the “blanket” operation of this immunity (Osman v. SSHD, ECtHR 29, 1998, 245).
However a classic legal battle eventually established an independent investigation on the Metropolitan Police Force’s fatal shooting of Azelle Rodney, who was the rear passenger in a car the police believed to be driving to a gunpoint robbery of Colombian drug dealers who were in possession of a substantial quantity of cocaine. The inquiry found that the operation to arrest Rodney and his fellow suspects was:
- very poorly planned with no discussion of strategies to minimise risk to lives including those of by-standers;
- the armed police officer covering his colleagues shot in rapid succession although he had no reason for believing that Rodney was reaching for a gun;
- poorly managed after the fatal injury including no reliable debriefing.