The Supreme Court is the UK’s highest court. For many years, it was known as the ‘House of Lords’ (not to be confused with the parliamentary House of Lords), and was officially re-designated the Supreme Court in October 2009. Today we highlight 7 ground-breaking human rights cases decided the House of Lords / Supreme Court.
1. No indefinite detention without charge
Back when it was known as the House of Lords, the highest court in the land decided the case which became number 1 in our Top 50 Cases That Transformed Britain. In 2004, the court said that, even during the ‘war on terror’, putting foreign terrorist suspects in prison indefinitely without charge or a trial was a breach of the right to liberty. This basically means they are locked up without knowing why, and without a chance to defend themselves. The court also said it was discriminatory that the policy only applied to foreign suspects, even though part of the terror threat came from British citizens.
The tension between the need to protect people from terrorism, while also ensuring the right to liberty is not disproportionately restricted, remains a key consideration for the government and courts. Read a plain English summary and the full case here.
2. The gay inheritance case
Again in 2004, the court held that a gay man could inherit a council flat from his long-term boyfriend, who had died. The law only granted a right to stay in the family property to the surviving partner if they lived with the deceased person ‘as his or her wife or husband’. On its face, the law did not extend the inheritance right to gay couples. So the court used its power under the Human Rights Act to read words into the existing law, which meant that it could extend to gay couples. This brought the law into line with the right to respect for private and family life and freedom from discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation. Read more about the case here.
3. The right to privacy
Another case from 2004 – Naomi Campbell sued the owners of the Daily Mirror for publishing photographs of her coming out of a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. She said this was a breach of her right to privacy. The court agreed. This case marked a major step in the development of the right to privacy in the UK, and it has been hotly debated ever since. Read about Naomi Campbell’s ground-breaking case here.
4. Protecting soldiers abroad
In an important 2013 case, the families of several British soldiers who had been killed either as a result of ‘friendly fire’ or the inability to check for hidden explosives (because of poor training or inadequate equipment), wanted to bring negligence claims against the Ministry of Defence and also claimed a breach of the soldiers’ rights to life. The Supreme Court decided the soldiers were protected by human rights law, even though they were acting abroad. This is controversial because it could potentially allow families of soldiers killed in the context of armed conflict to bring legal claims against the government. Read our post about this issue here.
5. NHS Duty of care to patients
Melanie Rabone was admitted to hospital after a suicide attempt. She was allowed to go home, instead of being kept in hospital to receive care. The next day she committed suicide. Melanie’s parents believed the hospital had been negligent and brought a claim against the hospital. The Supreme Court accepted the hospital had a duty of care to Melanie. The Human Rights Act sometimes imposes duties on public authorities to protect people – even from themselves. Read about the case here.
6. Disability rights
People with severe disabilities were living in case and were not free to leave. Their living conditions were good, but they were not given the chance to have their lack of liberty periodically reviewed. The Supreme Court made it clear that all disabled adults in care are entitled to the same dignity and status as non-disabled adults. This means regular reviews to ensure their best interests and needs are being taken into account. Read about this case here.
7. The right to die?
Tony Nicklinson had locked-in syndrome. He was paralysed save for his head and eyes. The Supreme Court had to decide whether the law which criminalised encouraging or aiding another person to commit suicide, should be changed. Tony claimed that the law infringed his right to decide when to die. The Supreme Court decided, by a majority, that it could not change the law: the question centred on a moral judgement which should be addressed by Parliament, not the court.