The European Convention forbids signatory states from opting out of this right and imposes these duties:
- not to take life save in the exceptional, lawful circumstances set out in Article 2(2) (thus no death squads or arbitrary executions)
- to conduct a proper and open investigation into deaths for which the state might be responsible (for example into a fatal shooting incident involving the police)
- to protect life by putting in place a legal and administrative system that provides effective deterrence against threats to life (a wide-ranging duty, that goes from investigating and prosecuting murderers to training and regulating doctors)
- An “operational duty” in certain circumstances* to take positive steps to prevent the death of an individual who is under threat *when police / NHS “knew or ought to have known” at the time of “a real and immediate risk” to the life of the identified person from the criminal acts of a third party. (Osman v United Kingdom (23452/94) (1999) 1 FLR 193 ECHR). = Osman test
1. Suicide in state custody: Middleton
Inevitably many claims of violations of the Right to Life are made by families of individuals who have lost their lives.
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 were drawn. Inquest law as it then stood allowed only a simple verdict (death by hanging), that took no account of the context of the death, and the question of possible neglect. The inquest jury informally told the coroner that they felt this was too narrow. His mother felt the same and took her case eventually to the House of Lords. In the light of ECHR Article 2’s regarding deaths in in state control, and also the HRA’s Article 6 requirement for state official’s to work within the Convention rights. They ordered a fresh inquest, Britain’s senior judge, Lord Bingham saying:
… the word “how” (the person died) is not simply to be interpreted as meaning “by what means” but rather “by what means in and in what circumstances”. R(Middleton v Somerste West Coroner  UKHL 10, paras 34.
Since that case families who have lost relatives in state control have been able to ask for this type of enhanced inquest which is known as an “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”. R (Amin) v Secretary of State for the Home Department 2003, 51 [at 31]:
It is only the HRA that has driven such helpful inquests, including allowing neglect verdicts, both aspects being since recognised in statute law in the Coroners and justice Act 2009.
2. State’s “operational” duty of care: mental health and the NHS
This develops the English Elizabethan concept of the monarch as parent, developed in modern times by the European Court of Human Rights: Osman v United Kingdom (2000) 29 EHRR 245
Mrs. Savage had a long history of mental health problems, and in 2004 was sectioned for treatment and her own protection. She was on an open ward and in July left the hospital and walked two miles to a train line where she killed herself. Her daughter took her mother’s death to court on grounds of the Right to Life and of hospital routines. The hospital trust argued that Mrs.Savage’s daughter must prove gross negligence by the hospital staff, but the Appeal Court argued that hospital patients are as vulnerable 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 “operational” (proactive) duty to do all that is reasonable to prevent the death.The hospital trust then appealed to the House of Lords, arguing that heavy supervision can often be counter-productive for mental health patients, but the HofL reaffirmed the operational duty to protect, when the issue is the Right to Life.
So Article 2 imposes a general duty on public authorities to employ competent staff and to adopt systems of work which protect the lives of patients.
The High Court judge who finally heard her case documented the risk factors including that Mrs. Savage was patently highly disturbed with little remission, including voices telling her to kill herself; and how she continually attempted to abscond up to the end. Only one staff member had bothered to read her history and the hospital’s (often incomplete) assessment processes failed to inform her care.
http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKHL/2008/74.html (Savage v South Essex Partnership NHS Trust  UKHL 74)
In 2010 the UK Supreme Court extended this “operational ” duty on NHS staff where there is a realistic risk of suicide to voluntary mental health patients in 2010:
http://www.supremecourt.gov.uk/decided-cases/docs/UKSC_2010_0140_PressSummary.pdf (Rabone v Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust  UKSC 2 .
3. State’s “operational” duty of care: the police and prevention / cause of murder
Various legal immunities strongly protect the police from prosecution for either willful or unwilful neglect, e.g. the “public policy immunity” which operates where such wide responsibility is unsustainable. In this way, our courts have maintained a high threshold on Article 2 claims against the police e.g. Chief Constable of Hertfordshire v Van Colle; Smith v Chief Constable of Sussex  UKHL 50; and even the more radical European Court of Human Rights drew back from declaring an Article 2 violation by the UK for the “blanket” operation of this immunity (Osman v. SSHD, ECtHR 29, 1998, 245).
However, a classic legal battle eventually established a suitably independent investigation into the Metropolitan Police’s fatal shooting of Azelle Rodney, who was the rear passenger in a car which the police believed to be driving to a gunpoint robbery of Colombian drug dealers in possession of a substantial quantity of cocaine. Criticisms of the police included lack of proportionality in that the shooting into his head continued after Rodney could have been seen to collapse. http://azellerodneyinquiry.independent.gov.uk/docs/The_Azelle_Rodney_Inquiry_Executive_Summary_(web).pdf
See http://www.ukhumanrightsblog.com 13-07-2013 for summary and comments.