The Human Rights Act 1998 sets out all of the Rights and Freedoms contained within in Schedule 1, Part I of the Act. The first article and right, is the right to life. It states:
“Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law.
Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this Article when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary:
(a) in defence of any person from unlawful violence;
(b) in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained;
(c) in action lawfully taken for the purpose of quelling a riot or insurrection”.
What does this mean?
This right means the state has a positive obligation to protect people’s lives – ensuring they do not take their life and also protecting us from having our lives deprived by others. As stated in the case of LCB v UK (1998) the state must take the appropriate steps to safeguard the lives of those in their jurisdiction.
The way the state must do this, is (as stated) ‘by law’. The UK does this through the law criminalising murder and manslaughter. Furthermore, there are rules for policing for example which help ensure the state do not infringe these rights. However, like with the laws of murder and manslaughter there are exceptions and defences that the state can use to avoid liability for not protecting a person’s right to life.
What are the exceptions?
Again, as stated specifically in the article, two exceptions are set out:
- If a court uses the death sentence following conviction for a crime.
- The state will not have contravened the right to life if it “results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary”.
The former exception is obviously not applicable here in the UK, as we do not use capital punishment as part of our judicial proceedings. However, the latter exception is certainly one that has been considered extensively in the case law here in the UK.
As you can probably tell, ‘absolutely necessary’ can mean different things to different people, as well as depending on the situation it is being asked in. For example, a kebab being ‘absolutely necessary’ after a night out, is different to the absolute necessity of you protecting your own life, by killing the person trying to take it (seriously, no matter how many shots you’ve had, these are completely different thresholds). This threshold was considered in McCann v UK (1995), where the European Court of Human Rights said the term indicated:
“that a stricter and more compelling test of necessity must be employed than that normally applicable when determining whether State action is “necessary in a democratic society” under paragraphs 2 of Articles 8 and 11 of the Convention”.
Further to it being a stricter test than other exceptions, the actions taken need to be proportionate according to the situations stated in the article ((a), (b) and (c) above). Therefore, the way we have clarified what ‘absolutely necessary’ means is by using a number of other vague phrases to set the threshold that rarely seem to set it at the same point…welcome to the life of a law student everyone!
So, here is a case to explain how this exception is used. In Constantinou v Cyprus (1997), a couple were shot dead by police in their own home, after the young man in the relationship had been threatening towards his partner. She had been screaming that the man was going to kill her, he had beaten her and the Court did agree that the authorities using armed officers to try and bring an end to the situation was justified (although it didn’t minimise the danger to lives by doing so). However, the aim of the mission was to arrest the man, save the woman and minimise the risk to any lives. So, were they justified in killing them? The Court felt that because one officer who fired THIRTEEN times had thought (falsely it turned out) that the young man had killed the girl and one of his colleagues, the absolute necessity threshold was met – even though the actual facts were the opposite, and the young man had merely reacted angrily to police storming his flat, but had not killed anyone at the point he was shot.
I hope that makes it a bit clearer, but obviously it is not as simple as this. The case is used as precedent (ie the Court looks at the judgment for guidance in future cases), but it does not mean a similar case will not be decided differently and suddenly this threshold is even vaguer than the words used to describe it, already make it. This is one of the wonderfully frustrating (but, useful) things about having a judiciary translating written law into real-life scenarios.
So, that is your brief description of the right to life – you have a right to live, but unfortunately, it is not an absolute right. There are situations where you can be deprived of that life legally – although we’re not entirely sure what constitutes legally depriving someone of life and what is murder. Best thing to do is just not kill anyone and steer clear of letting the judges decide that for you! Luckily in the UK, we’re generally quite good at protecting this right, so fingers crossed it’s not something you have to consider in any greater detail – have a lovely evening all and I’ll see you tomorrow for Article 3!