Right to life

The Human Rights Act requires the government to protect human life.

This means that nobody - including the government - can try to end your life. It also means that you have the right to be protected if your life is at risk.

Similarly, public authorities should consider your right to life when making decisions that might put you in danger or which affect your life expectancy.

Example

A social worker from the domestic violence team at a local authority used human rights arguments to secure new accommodation for a woman and her family at risk of serious harm from a violent ex-partner. She had received training on the local authority’s obligation to protect the human rights of the woman and her family including their right to life and their right not to be treated in an inhuman or degrading way. (Example provided by the British Institute of Human Rights)

The Human Rights Act also prohibits the death penalty in the UK.

If a member of your family dies in circumstances that involve the state, you may have the right to an investigation.

The courts have held that the right to life does not include a right to take your own life.

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Restrictions

The right to life is absolute.

However, there are situations when it does not apply.

A person’s right to life is not breached if they die when a public authority (such as the police) uses necessary force to:

  • stop them carrying out unlawful violence
  • make a lawful arrest
  • stop them escaping lawful detainment
  • stop a riot or uprising

Of course, even in these circumstances, death should be avoided wherever possible, and the force used must be absolutely necessary and strictly proportionate.

The positive obligation on the state to protect a person’s life is not absolute. For example, limited resources can be taken into account. This means the state is not required to provide life-saving drugs to everyone in all circumstances.

The right to life protected by the Human Rights Act does not include a right to die.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that a foetus does not have human rights until the moment it is born. However, the Court has recognised the diversity of views on this issue across states with different religious traditions.


What the law says

Article 2: Right to life

  1. 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 the penalty is provided by law.
     
  2. 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
  • in defence of any person from unlawful violence
  • in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained
  • in action lawfully taken for the purpose of quelling a riot or insurrection

Example cases

Pretty v United Kingdom (2002)

A woman suffering from an incurable degenerative disease wanted to control when and how she died. In order to avoid an undignified death through respiratory failure, she wanted her husband to help her commit suicide and sought an assurance that he would not be prosecuted for his assistance. The European Court of Human Rights found that the right to life does not create an entitlement to choose death rather than life. So, there was no right to die at the hands of a third person or with the assistance of a public authority.

Osman v United Kingdom (1998)

A teacher had developed an unhealthy interest in one of his pupils that included following him home, locking him in a classroom, vandalising his home and victimising his school friend. The teacher’s behaviour was reported to the headmaster and to the police. The teacher subsequently shot the pupil and his father, injuring the pupil and killing his father. The European Court of Human Rights found that the police had not failed in their duty under Article 2 to safeguard the father’s right to life. There was insufficient proof that the teacher posed a real and immediate threat to life which the police knew about or ought to know about. The positive obligation to safeguard life must not impose an impossible or disproportionate burden on public authorities.

(Case summaries taken from Human rights, human lives, Department for Constitutional Affairs, 2006.)

Last Updated: 09 Jun 2009