Respect for your private and family life

You have the right to respect for your private life, your family life, your home and your correspondence. But at the same time you must also respect the rights of other people.

Your private life

The right to a private life means that you have the right to carry on your life privately, without government interference, as long as you also respect the rights of other people.

The courts have interpreted the concept of ‘private life’ in a very broad way. It covers things like your right to choose your sexual identity, your lifestyle, and the way you look and dress.

It also includes your right to control who sees and touches your body. For example, this means that public authorities cannot do things like leave you undressed in a busy ward, or take a blood sample without your permission.

The concept of private life also covers your right to develop your personality and to develop friendships and other relationships. This includes a right to participate in essential economic, social, cultural and recreational activities of the community.

In some circumstances, public authorities may need to take steps to support you to realise your right to a private life, including your ability to participate in society.

The right to private life means that the media and others can be prevented from interfering in your life.

It also means that personal information about you (including official records, photographs, letters, diaries and medical records), should be kept securely and not shared without your permission, except in certain circumstances.

Example

A physical disabilities team at a local authority decided to provide support workers to facilitate social activities. Residents were taken to a number of social events including visits to pubs and clubs. One service user who was gay asked for a support worker to accompany him to a gay pub. But the manager of the scheme refused on the basis that none of his staff was prepared to attend a gay venue. An advocate working on behalf of the service user realised that human rights arguments based on the right to respect for private life could be used to challenge practices of this sort.

(Example provided by the British Institute of Human Rights.)

Family life

You have the right to enjoy your family relationships without interference from the government. This includes the right to live with your family and, where this is not possible, the right to regular contact.

‘Family life’ can include the relationship between an unmarried couple, an adopted child and the adoptive parent, and a foster parent and fostered child.

See also the right to marry.

Example

In 1992 the female partner of a transsexual man gave birth to a child following Artificial Insemination by Donor (AID) treatment. At the time (prior to the Gender Recognition Act) the man was regarded in law as a woman and was prevented from adding his name to the child’s birth certificate as Father. The family made an application to the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of themselves and their child, pleading that the UK government’s refusal to allow the man’s name on the birth certificate contravened the their right to privacy and stigmatised the whole family (and the child in particular).

The European Court of Human Rights was not ready at that time (1996) to recognise the transsexual man’s status as a man. That decision did not occur until a later judgement (see below); however the judges did recognise that the relationship between the man, his partner and their children constituted a family.

Subsequently, in a later judgement (Goodwin & I vs UK), the European Court of Human Rights went on to rule that the inability for transsexual people to be recognised in law as their acquired gender, to hold an appropriately gendered birth certificate, and to be able to marry someone of the opposite gender violated both the right to private life (Article 8) and the right to family life (Article 12). Subsequent to this judgement in July 2002 the Government enacted the Gender Recognition Act (2004), which created a mechanism to enable all these things.

Your home

The right to respect for your home is not a right to housing. Instead, it is a right to enjoy your existing home peacefully. This means that public authorities should not stop you entering or living in your home without very good reason, and they should not enter without your permission. This applies whether or not you own your home.

Sometimes a public authority may need to take action to allow you to properly enjoy your home, for example where a neighbour makes excessive noise in a way that disrupts your life.

See also the right to protection of property.

Your correspondence

Your correspondence should generally be kept confidential and should not be interfered with. The concept of correspondence covers communication by letter, telephone, fax or email.

Restrictions

In some situations, public authorities may interfere with your right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence.

This is only possible where the authority can show that its action has a proper basis in law, and is necessary and ‘proportionate’ in order to:

  • protect national security
  • protect public safety
  • protect the economy
  • protect health or morals
  • prevent disorder or crime
  • protect the rights and freedoms of other people.

A ‘proportionate’ response to a problem is one that is no more than is necessary and is appropriate and not excessive in the circumstances. 

What the law says

Article 8: Right to privacy

  1. Everyone has the right for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
  2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Legal case examples

Peck v United Kingdom (2003)

A man suffering from depression attempted suicide by cutting his wrists on the street. CCTV cameras filmed him walking down the street with the knife. The footage was then published as film and as photographs without his consent and without properly concealing his identity. The European Court of Human Rights held that, although the filming and recording of the incident did not necessarily interfere with his privacy, the disclosure of the CCTV footage by the local authority constituted a serious interference with his right to a private life. In this case there were insufficient reasons to justify disclosure of the footage without the man’s consent and without masking his identity. Accordingly, disclosure of the material was a disproportionate interference with his private life.

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

Rachel Gunter (by her litigation friend and father Edwin Gunter) v South Western Staffordshire Primary Care Trust (2005)

A disabled woman who required 24 hour care wanted to be cared for at home with her family, through an extensive care package. However, her local Primary Care Trust (PCT) wanted to place her in residential care due to the high cost of home care, and because of the higher quality of care in the residential care home in the event of a crisis. The High Court found that the PCT had not properly considered the impact of this on her family life. They had not taken into account her improved quality of life at home, or her own wishes to be placed at home. The PCT was therefore told to remake their decision, taking her right to respect for her family life into account.

(Case summary provided by the British Institute of Human Rights)

Connors v United Kingdom (2004)

A family had been settled for about 13 years on a site provided by the council for people with a nomadic lifestyle. The council then evicted them for causing a nuisance, using the summary eviction procedure. The family challenged the council’s decision on the basis that their eviction was an unjustifiable breach of their right to enjoy their home. The European Court of Human Rights held that there had been a breach of the right to respect for their home. It found that the legal framework applying to the occupation of pitches on local authority gypsy sites did not provide the family with sufficient procedural protection of their rights. Special consideration should be given to their needs and their nomadic lifestyle because of the vulnerable position of gypsies in society. Any interference that would render them homeless could not be justifiable unless the public interest grounds were sufficiently weighty. The court found that there were no such grounds in this case.

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

Goodwin & I v United Kingdom (2002)

This case heard in the European Court of Human Rights explored issues for trans people in relation to their right to private life (Article 8) and their right to family life (Article 12) – the latter because of their inability to marry someone of the opposite gender role.

AB, R ( on application of) v Secretary of State for Justice & Anor [2009] EWHC 2220

A transsexual woman prisoner won the right to be relocated to a women’s prison after her case against the Secretary of State for Justice was heard in 2009. The prisoner, who successfully applied for anonymity in court, had obtained legal recognition under the Gender Recognition Act in 2006, meaning that she is regarded for all purposes in law as a woman.  However, the Prison Service had decided that she must be accommodated in a men’s prison. Her lawyers argued that the circumstances in which she was accommodated, which prevented her from wearing overtly feminine clothes or makeup and socialising with women, prevented any possibility of her reassignment treatment being progressed further, or of her obtaining gender reassignment surgery. Deputy Judge David Elvin QC, sitting at London's High Court, quashed Mr Straw's decision to continue detaining "AB" in a male prison saying it breached her right to a private and family life the European Convention on Human Rights. He dismissed claims on behalf of the Secretary of State that accommodating Ms A in a women’s prison would be costly. He said, "It follows that, so long as the claimant remains within the male prison estate, she is unable to progress towards the surgery which is her objective."  For full details of this case
 

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