A teacher in a classroom of pupils

Human rights case studies

A selection of case studies relating to human rights

Right to respect for private and family life (Article 8, ECHR)

A young man called Graham Gaskin was very badly treated in care for many years. He wanted to read his social services files, which were kept by Liverpool City Council. The Council refused to let him see all his files. Graham Gaskin went through the courts in the UK to try and force the Council to let him see his files, but the courts agreed with the Council. So he took his complaint to the European Court of Human Rights.

The European Court of Human Rights said the Council had breached Graham Gaskin’s rights. The Court agreed he needed to see his social services files in order to try and make sense of his childhood and his treatment in care. As a result of Graham Gaskin’s complaint, which was decided by the European Court in 1989, it is now much easier for people in care or in contact with social services to see information that is written about them. Councils must now keep files concerning children in care for 75 years.

Freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 9, ECHR)

In 2004, a 16 year-old girl called Shabina Begum complained to the UK courts about her school’s uniform rules. Her older brother helped her work with a lawyer to bring her case. Shabina’s lawyer said that her human rights had been breached because the school would not let her wear a jilbab, which she considered necessary to wear because of her religion. The UK Court of Appeal agreed Shabina’s rights had been breached, but then the case went to the House of Lords, which disagreed and said that her rights had not been breached.

Even though Shabina lost her final court case, there was a lot of discussion about school uniforms in the newspapers and on TV. The Government wrote new rules for schools emphasising that students and parents must be asked their views when uniform rules are being made.

Right to a fair trial (Article 6, ECHR)

In 1999, two boys complained to the European Court of Human Rights that their rights under the ECHR had been breached. They had been put on trial in court for killing a two year-old, and were just 10 years old when they committed the murder. The boys' lawyers said that they had not had a fair trial because their case was dealt with in an adult court. There were a number of journalists present, which made the boys confused and frightened.

Judges in the European Court of Human Rights agreed that the boys' right to a fair trial had been breached. The judgment said the UK Government should make changes to protect the rights of other children and young people appearing in court in future. A lot of changes were made, though many human rights organisations and campaigners are still concerned about how children who commit crimes in the UK are treated.

Prohibition of torture (Article 3, European Convention on Human Rights)

In 2007, the families of two boys who had died in custody, during or after being restrained, complained to the UK courts about a new law which allowed staff to use physical force a lot more often on children in some prisons (called Secure Training Centres). The lawyers said that the new law breached the boys right to prohibition of torture. The UK Court of Appeal agreed and said that the new law was in direct conflict with human rights law. This meant that the new law was revoked.

Right to respect for private and family life (Article 8, European Convention on Human Rights)

Two children and an adult got help from lawyers to complain about the police. They had been stopped and searched by the police while at a protest in Kent about protecting the environment. The children were told that they were being searched for items because they were going to the protest. They were frightened by the experience. They complained to the UK courts, but before the case finished the police agreed they had breached the children’s rights. A settlement was agreed and each child received compensation of £1,125 and a personal apology from the police. A letter was also sent to every UK police force explaining why 'stop and searches' that are carried out disproportionately are against the law and what should be done differently in future.

Note: These case studies are from the Children’s Right Alliance. For more on children’s rights, visit the CRAE website

Stop and search

In January 2010 the European Court of Human Rights said that police blanket 'stop and search' powers, introduced under counter-terrorism legislation, are unlawful as ethnic minorities were disproportionately more likely to be stopped and searched. Between 2007 and 2009, nearly 310,000 young people aged 10 to 17 were stopped and searched by the police; 40% of these were Black children.

Corporal punishment

In February 2005 the Law Lords rejected the claim from a group of Christian head teachers, teachers and parents of four independent schools that the corporal punishment of children is central to their religious beliefs and to prohibit this in private schools is a violation of their right to practice their religion. The Law Lords found the ban on corporal punishment to be legitimate and proportionate.

Fair trail

In November 2004 the European Court of Human Rights said an 11 year-old boy did not have a fair trial because he did not understand the consequences of any penalty, including imprisonment. An independent psychologist said the boy was functioning between the age of a six and eight year-old.

Protection in prison

In November 2002 the High Court said children in prison must be given the same protection from abuse and harm as children in families and other institutional settings such as children's homes.

Protection from harm

In January 2001 the High Court stopped three powerful news organisations from publishing the details of two 18 year-olds who had served custodial sentences for a murder they committed when they were 10 years old. The judge said the injunctions were necessary because of "real possibility of serious physical harm and possible death".

Note: These case studies are from the Children’s Right Alliance. For more on children’s rights, visit the CRAE website

Example 1

Foreign criminals who are jailed for more than one year may be considered for deportation. In some cases, the foreign criminal may be given the right to stay in the UK if deportation breaches their human rights. A breach of human rights may include the right to private and family life if their family lives in the UK or right to life or to protection from torture if their lives could be put at risk by being deported to their own country.

This could cause a conflict of rights between the criminal and the UK public. For example, if a foreign criminal was granted the right to stay in the UK because their lives would be at risk by returning to their country, but they committed a crime that presented a threat to public safety, then this could be a conflict between the following rights:

  • Rights of Criminal - The right to life (Article 2, European Convention on Human Rights) and to be protected from torture (Article 3, ECHR).
  • Rights of UK Public - The right to protection of property and peaceful enjoyment of possessions (Article 1, Protocol 1, ECHR) if for example the individual has been convicted of burglary or theft.

Example 2

Freedom of expression (Article 10, European Convention on Human Rights) is a fundamental right to a democratic society. However this can often conflict with the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 9, European Convention on Human Rights). For example, when Sion Owens, a BNP candidate for the Welsh assembly, burnt the Koran he was exerting his freedom of expression. However, this act could incite hatred and violence against Muslim’s, threatening and conflicting with their freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The extent that people’s freedom of expression should be limited causes much debate. To review an interesting article about the limits of freedom of expression, visit here.

Myth 1: Human Rights lets Travellers break the law

Myth busted
The Human Rights Act (HRA) does not provide new rights for Travellers. Even before the Human Rights Act, the 1976 Race Relations Act (now part of the Equality Act 2010) recognised Traveller's need for housing, education and health. There is a 'right to respect of his private and family life, his home and his correspondence' under the Human Rights Act, but these rights do not entitle them to set up camp anywhere, and they can be punished if they don't obey an order to vacate. But decisions about planning and how and when to vacate sites must be taken with human rights in mind, to ensure that treatment isn't disproportionate and that everyone - regardless of culture or heritage - has access to appropriate accommodation.

Examples in the media
'If you want to build a new home you have to get planning permission first. But if you are a Traveller you can bend the planning law - building where you like thanks to the Human Rights Act' - Michael Howard 2005.

Myth 2: Prisoners have human rights to video games and porn

Myth busted
The Human Rights Act does not give prisoners the right to receive pornography, games machines, TV or similar items while in prison. Some prisons may allow controlled access to these privileges as part of its management regime, but this is not related to prisoner's human rights.

Rather than having more human rights, prisoners have in fact been deprived of one of their human rights - the right to liberty. However, people in prison are still human, so they don't lose access to all their rights under the Human Rights Act. Prisons have to conform to the Human Rights Act in that they are not allowed to inhumanely treat prisoners. Some of the standards prisons have to meet include educational, medical and religious facilities as well as recreation. What that recreation entails is decided by prison managers, not human rights law.

Examples in the media
The Sun newspaper reported that 'Serial killer Dennis Nilsen, 60, received hardcore gay porn in jail thanks to human rights laws' (The Sun 13 May 2006). In fact, he had challenged a decision by the governor of Whitemoor prison to deny him access to pornographic material by arguing that the ban breached his human right of freedom of expression. The case failed at the very first hurdle: it never entered the judicial system at all, apart from to be thrown out. Of course human rights legislation would never legitimise his request for pornography.

Myth 3: Human rights gives criminals the right to Kentucky Fried Chicken

Myth busted
This is a story that has been repeated again and again; a lot of people think that the Human Rights Act actually required the police to give the prisoner, who had escaped to the roof of his prison, to be fed Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). The Government investigated this allegation and made it clear publicly that the Human Rights Act had nothing to do with the decision that was made. The police responded to his refreshment demands as part of their negotiating strategy.

Examples in the media
The Sun reported this story with a headline of: 'Finger-nickin' good. Police gave the suspected car thief a meal because of his Human Rights' - The Sun 7 June 2006.

The Daily Telegraph summarised this case as being about 'A suspected car thief who bombarded police with bricks and tiles during a rooftop siege [in Gloucester] was given a Kentucky Fried Chicken takeaway meal by officers to ensure his "well-being and human rights".

Myth 4: Even the police don't think the Human Rights Act is a good idea

Myth busted
There is nothing in the Human Rights Act that prevents the prosecution of offenders. In fact, it's the opposite: both the Government and the courts have a duty (under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights) to take steps to protect the public and courts sentencing criminals have to take into account the severity of the crime and the danger to the public. It wouldn't make sense to have a Human Rights Act that doesn't protect all people, especially victims.

Examples in the media
This was reported in the Daily Express as an attack on the Human Rights Act, with the headline reading: 'A top detective has attacked the way the Human Rights Act is being used by killers and rapists to try to give themselves a better life.' - Daily Express 14 May 2008.

Myth 5: Human Rights Act allowed rapist to be placed with children

Myth busted
This myth refers to a very sad situation where a couple with children took in a foster child who then assaulted the children. It turned out that the foster child had a history of violence. However, the Human Rights Act does not prevent public authorities from disclosing information that will allow parents to protect their children. On the contrary, the Act specifically allows for such disclosure where it is justified in the interests of public safety, for the prevention of crime or for the protection of the rights of others. The Human Rights Act had no bearing on the case whatsoever.

Examples in the media
Despite this, the Daily Mail reported that 'As the rapist, now 19, began an indefinite sentence last night, there were suspicions that the local authority might have used aspects of the Human Rights Act to prevent the couple from knowing about the teenager's past.' - The Daily Mail, 3 March 2009.

Myth 6: Human rights laws stop people from taking photos in public parks

Myth busted
A former BBC newsreader has hit out after a council banned him from taking pictures of flowers in public parks - in case it infringed people's human rights. In fact, there is nothing in human rights law that prevents someone taking photographs of flowers in a public place for their own use. If the photographer intended to use the photographs commercially then they might need the permission of the park's owners, but that has nothing to do with human rights law - rather to do with commercial interests.

A person's right to privacy under Article 8 of the ECHR might apply if a photographer was intrusive in taking photographs of an individual without their consent. Each case will depend on its facts, how the photograph is taken, what it is going to be used for, and whether there is any justification for this. An example of when this might apply is if a press photographer was aggressively chasing a celebrity so that they could take an unauthorised photo of their child, with the intention of publishing it for commercial gain.

Examples in the media
This story was reported widely, in the Daily Express - (26/08/2010), Daily Mail - (26/08/2010), The Sun - (26/08/2010), Daily Record - (26/08/2010).

Myth 7: Human Rights Act gives students a right to junk food

Myth busted
This myth came about from the initiative of schools to promote healthy eating by preventing the students from leaving the school at lunch times. The reporting was positioned so that it looks like the Human Rights Act is the reason that the healthy eating scheme will fail, seeming to say that forcing them to eat health food or denying them junk food is against their rights. In fact, it is common practice for many schools to only allow pupils outside the grounds if they have a parental note giving permission or if they have been awarded special privileges by the school. Guidelines from the Schools Food Trust recommend that students are kept on the school site as a way of stopping them from buying unhealthy food. It neither suggests that school gates are locked to prevent students leaving at lunchtime or that pupils are forced to eat specific foods.

Schools have a legal responsibility for their pupils during school hours. This means that they are allowed to make students stay on school premises. Human rights law says that this is a legitimate aim. However, a school would probably be breaching this legitimate aim if they either locked pupils in the school or physically forced them to eat.

Examples in the media
This story was reported by the Daily Mail (Scotland), which stated that a school that wanted to lock pupils in at lunch time to break their bad eating habits could be under the Human Rights Act and Teachers would be powerless to physically detain pupils who exercised this right.

Myth 8: Human rights means that you can't publish 'WANTED' posters

Myth busted
This isn't true; the right to privacy is not an absolute right, so that it can be limited in order to prevent criminal offences. Circulating suspect's photographs and the crime for which they are being sought may be proportionate. Other examples that don't breach human rights are police signs asking for information placed at the scene of the crime and Crimewatch-style reconstructions. The police do need to be careful that they do not imply that these individuals have committed crimes for which they have not been convicted as that would be libellous (covered by libel laws, not the Human Rights Act).

Examples in the media
Details of 25 of Britain's worst convicted offenders are published on the Serious Organised Crime Agency's website in the hope of reducing reoffending. However, when Essex police used a similar initiative in 2003, one convicted thief claimed this use of his photograph was a breach of privacy under the Human Rights Act, as reported in the times 'Rogues Gallery of career criminals', The Times, Sean O'Neill

Myth 9: The Human Rights Act means that terrorists can stay in Britain

Myth busted
No-one would argue that the state should not be able, after a fair trial, to deprive dangerous or harmful individuals of their liberty. However, most people would also agree that it is not acceptable to send people into situations where they may be tortured. Human rights do protect all individuals from torture, and if the government knows that individuals may fact torture or death in their own home countries, they have an obligation to protect them.

Calls for the Human Rights Act to be scrapped following this decision don't take into account that whether or not the Act was in force, the same decision would have been reached. The UK has signed up to numerous international treaties including, the Convention Against Torture and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights - all of which expressly forbid the government, and courts, from allowing people to be deported to face torture.

Examples in the media
The Daily Telegraph reported that a court had ruled that a pair of terror suspects with links to Al Qa'eda will remain in the UK after judges ruled it would breach their human rights to deport them because their lives would be in danger if they were sent back to Pakistan.
20-May 2010, Daily Telegraph

Myth 10: Human Rights gives prisoners the right to vote

Myth busted
This myth is actually true! The right to participate in free elections is a human right, and although people in prison have lost their right to liberty, they still retain other human rights. They still have the right to life, the right to be free from torture, and the right to participate in elections. This was agreed by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Hirst v the United Kingdom (No 2). In this case, John Hirst brought a case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that to deny him the right to vote was a breach of his human rights, specifically under Article 3, Protocol 1 of the European Convention of Human Rights. In October 2005, the Court found that a blanket ban preventing prisoners from voting was a violation of their human rights, specifically, the right to participate in free elections. The Article states that: 'the High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature', and denying prisoners the ability to participate in elections was breaching that right.

The government is now considering how to implement this ruling, which is required by law, but also gives prisoners a sense of dignity and participation. One of the hallmarks of citizenship is the right to vote; it is also a responsibility. As the Howard League for Penal Reform commented: 'If we want prisoners to return safely to the community, feeling they have a stake in society, then the right to vote is a good means of engaging individuals with the responsibilities of citizenship.'


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Last updated: 13 Sep 2017