Human Rights Act does not apply on the battlefield, says Supreme Court [updated]

30 June 2010 by

R (Smith) v Secretary of State for Defence & Anor [2010] UKSC 29 – Read judgment

The Supreme Court has ruled by a 6-3 majority that the Human Rights Act does not apply on the battlefield and soldiers are not automatically entitled to inquests arising from deaths in foreign conflicts.

The case related to Private Jason Smith, a member of the Territorial Army who died from heatstroke in Iraq in 2003.

The decision has come as a relief to the Ministry of Defence. In recent years, coroners have been highly critical of the armed forces’ protection of soldiers on the battlefield, and this case had the potential to open up the Government to a series of claims for compensation by soldiers and their relatives. However, the Supreme Court has (narrowly) taken the view that the Human Rights Act 1998 was not designed to apply in such cases.

The Supreme Court held that it was not necessary in every case of a death of a serviceman abroad to carry out an investigation which examined whether there was fault on the part of the state because (a) the Human Rights Act 1998 did not apply to armed forces on fo reign soil and (b) in any event, there was no such automatic right. The type of investigation would depend on the circumstances of the case.

Private Jason Smith, a member of the Territorial Army, was posted to Iraq in June 2003 at age 32. He had spent eight days in Kuwait to acclimatise but the room he was then given in Iraq did not have air conditioning. In August 2003 temperatures in the shade reached in excess of 50 degrees C, which was the maximum that available thermometers could measure. He reported sick and complained that he could not stand the heat. Some days later he suffered a cardiac arrest and died.

The Court of Appeal ruled last year that the Human Rights Act 1998 applied to soldiers in the battlefield, and that as such the Article 2 duty to investigate deaths caused by negligence arose (see our recent post on Bloody Sunday for more on this duty). The inquest into his death therefore had to be Article 2 compliant.

Human rights do not apply

The Supreme Court ultimately reversed the decision of the Court of Appeal by a narrow 6-3 majority. The narrow margin of victory suggests that whilst the issue of battlefield rights has been resolved for now, it may be only a matter of time before a similar issue is brought to the court’s attention.

The following summary is taken from the official summary produced by the Supreme Court. There were two main issues before the court.

  1. whether on the true interpretation of article 1 of the ECHR British troops operating on foreign soil fell within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom (‘the jurisdiction issue’); and
  2. whether the fresh inquest into the death of Private Smith must conform with the procedural requirements implied into article 2 (‘the inquest issue’)

On the jurisdiction issue, Lord Phillips stated that the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg had held that ‘jurisdiction’ within the meaning of article 1 was essentially territorial but extended in exceptional circumstances requiring special justification to other bases of jurisdiction. The difficulty lay in defining those exceptions [para 11]. It was unlikely that the Contracting States, when they agreed the ECHR in 1951 in the aftermath of a global conflict in which millions of troops had been deployed, regarded it as desirable or practicable to extend the protection of article 2 to troop operations abroad [para 58].

On the inquest issue, Lord Phillips stated that where there was reason to suspect a substantive breach by the state of the article 2 right to life, it was established that the state of its own motion should carry out an investigation into the death which had certain features: a sufficient element of public scrutiny, conducted by an independent tribunal, involving the relatives of the deceased and which was prompt and effective [para 64].

There was no automatic right to such an investigation whenever a member of the armed forces died on active service [para 84]. The UK had a staged system of investigation into deaths. Some form of internal investigation would always be held into military deaths in service [para 85] and a public inquest was required whenever a body was brought back to this country. This would satisfy many of the procedural requirements of article 2. If, in the course of the inquest, it became apparent that there might have been a breach by the state of its positive article 2 obligations, this should, insofar as possible, be investigated and the result reflected in the coroner’s verdict, so as to satisfy the procedural requirements of article 2.

In Private Smith’s case, the courts below were correct to hold that the coroner should have found a possibility that there had been a failure of the system to protect soldiers in extreme temperatures. It followed that the new inquest should comply with the procedural requirements of article 2 [paras 87 and 88].

Read more:

Welcome to the UKHRB


This blog is run by 1 Crown Office Row barristers' chambers. Subscribe for free updates here. The blog's editorial team is:
Commissioning Editor: Jonathan Metzer
Editorial Team: Rosalind English
Angus McCullough QC David Hart QC
Martin Downs
Jim Duffy

Free email updates


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog for free and receive weekly notifications of new posts by email.

Subscribe

Categories


Tags


Aarhus Abortion Abu Qatada Abuse Access to justice adoption AI air pollution air travel ALBA Allergy Al Qaeda Amnesty International animal rights Animals anonymity Article 1 Protocol 1 Article 2 article 3 Article 4 article 5 Article 6 Article 8 Article 9 article 10 Article 11 article 13 Article 14 article 263 TFEU Artificial Intelligence Asbestos Assange assisted suicide asylum asylum seekers Australia autism badgers benefits Bill of Rights biotechnology blogging Bloody Sunday brexit Bribery British Waterways Board Catholic Church Catholicism Chagos Islanders Charter of Fundamental Rights child protection Children children's rights China christianity citizenship civil liberties campaigners civil partnerships climate change clinical negligence closed material procedure Coercion Commission on a Bill of Rights common law communications competition confidentiality consent conservation constitution contact order contact tracing contempt of court Control orders Copyright coronavirus costs costs budgets Court of Protection crime criminal law Cybersecurity Damages data protection death penalty defamation DEFRA deportation deprivation of liberty derogations Detention Dignitas diplomacy disability disclosure Discrimination disease divorce DNA domestic violence duty of care ECHR ECtHR Education election Employment Environment Equality Act Equality Act 2010 Ethiopia EU EU Charter of Fundamental Rights EU costs EU law European Convention on Human Rights European Court of Human Rights European Court of Justice evidence extradition extraordinary rendition Facebook Family Fatal Accidents Fertility FGM Finance foreign criminals foreign office foreign policy France freedom of assembly Freedom of Expression freedom of information freedom of speech Gay marriage gay rights Gaza Gender genetics Germany Google Grenfell Gun Control Health HIV home office Housing HRLA human rights Human Rights Act human rights news Human Rights Watch Huntington's Disease immigration India Indonesia injunction Inquests insurance international law internet inuit Iran Iraq Ireland islam Israel Italy IVF ivory ban Japan joint enterprise judaism judicial review Judicial Review reform Julian Assange jury trial JUSTICE Justice and Security Bill Law Pod UK legal aid legal aid cuts Leveson Inquiry lgbtq liability Libel Liberty Libya lisbon treaty Lithuania local authorities marriage Media and Censorship mental capacity Mental Capacity Act Mental Health military Ministry of Justice modern slavery morocco murder music Muslim nationality national security naturism neuroscience NHS Northern Ireland nuclear challenges Obituary parental rights parliamentary expenses scandal patents Pensions Personal Injury physician assisted death Piracy Plagiarism planning planning system Poland Police Politics Pope press prison Prisoners prisoner votes Prisons privacy Professional Discipline Property proportionality Protection of Freedoms Bill Protest Public/Private public access public authorities public inquiries quarantine Radicalisation rehabilitation Reith Lectures Religion RightsInfo right to die right to family life Right to Privacy right to swim riots Roma Romania Round Up Royals Russia saudi arabia Scotland secrecy secret justice Secret trials sexual offence Sikhism Smoking social media social workers South Africa Spain special advocates Sports Standing starvation statelessness stem cells stop and search Strasbourg super injunctions Supreme Court Supreme Court of Canada surrogacy surveillance Syria Tax technology Terrorism tort Torture travel treason treaty accession trial by jury TTIP Turkey Twitter UK Ukraine universal credit universal jurisdiction unlawful detention USA US Supreme Court vicarious liability Wales War Crimes Wars Welfare Western Sahara Whistleblowing Wikileaks wildlife wind farms WomenInLaw Worboys wrongful birth YearInReview Zimbabwe

Disclaimer


This blog is maintained for information purposes only. It is not intended to be a source of legal advice and must not be relied upon as such. Blog posts reflect the views and opinions of their individual authors, not of chambers as a whole.

Our privacy policy can be found on our ‘subscribe’ page or by clicking here.

%d bloggers like this: