The tragic death of 12-year-old Archie Battersbee after the removal of life support last August, following a High Court order of Mr Justice Hayden, continues to plague the UK’s international relations.
Archie’s mother, Hollie Dance, supported by the Christian Legal Centre, commenced proceedings against the UK government pursuant to the Optional Protocol of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. She complained that the decision of the UK High Court violated Archie’s right to life and right to equal treatment as a disabled person.
UK violation of UN injunction?
In a dramatic and unprecedented last-ditch legal battle, on 29 July 2022, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) issued an injunction under Article 4 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention requiring that the UK keep Archie alive while the Committee considered his case.
However, the UK Court of Appeal ruled that the decision of the national High Court took precedence over the UN injunction despite the UK’s international law obligations under the Convention to which the UK government voluntarily subscribed.
As a result of that ruling, Archie’s life support was switched off on 6 August 2022, resulting in his immediate death.
UN to consider complaint
Ms Dance’s lawyers, however, asked the UN to consider her complaint.
The UK government’s lawyers then filed a 21-page-long submission, asking the UN to dismiss Ms Dance’s complaint as ‘inadmissible’, ‘manifestly ill-founded’ and an ‘abuse of process’ under the Optional Protocol.
However last week, the UN Committee confirmed that it will now proceed to consider the merits of Ms Dance’s complaint and whether Archie’s rights as a disabled person have been violated by the UK.
The UN CRPD is a quasi-judicial international human rights body which operates under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to enforce the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The UK ratified the Convention and its Optional Protocol in 2009, thereby agreeing to be bound by the final and interim rulings of the Committee, including its injunctions known as ‘interim measures’.
The Convention provides in Article 10 that “States Parties reaffirm that every human being has the inherent right to life and shall take all necessary measures to ensure its effective enjoyment by persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others.”
Ms Dance’s lawyers argue that this is at odds with UK practice, where the Courts routinely authorise the withdrawal of life support from severely disabled patients such as Archie on the grounds that sustaining life is not in their best interests.
Following a complaint from several disability rights organisations, in 2016 the CRPD found that “grave and systemic violations of disabled persons’ rights” were taking place in the UK.
The CRPD further criticised the UK system of withdrawing life-sustaining treatment based on the patient’s ‘best interests’ as determined by domestic courts. In its 2017 ‘Concluding observations on the initial report of the United Kingdom’ on UK’s compliance with the Convention, the CRPD stated: “The CRPD notes with concern that the substituted decision-making applied in matters of termination or withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment and care is inconsistent with the right to life of persons with disabilities as equal and contributing members of society.”
The UK government is now facing the prospect of a further diplomatic embarrassment if the UN body finds that, in removing his life support because of his disability, it breached Archie’s human rights as a disabled person. The UK may expect further censure for its refusal to honour the urgent ‘Interim Measures’ injunction despite its international law obligations under the Optional Protocol.
‘Grateful to the UN’
Responding to the news, Archie’s mum, Hollie Dance, said: “I am again so grateful to the UN for their response. We have received so little support from the UK ‘system’, this means so much. At the time, we felt completely betrayed that the government intervened and went against us despite the UN’s intervention.
“All we had ever wanted was for Archie to have time. The UN intervention granted that time, but in our hour of need, that was taken away from us.
“Nothing can now bring Archie back, but I am determined to continue to pursue justice for him and to hold the UK government properly accountable.”
Bruno Quintavalle, Ms Dance’s barrister, who is leading the legal team said: “The UK government refused to take action to comply with the UN Committee’s interim measures and the UK courts refused to ensure that the government satisfied its obligations under international law; this important investigation by the UN CRPD will now clarify if these omissions are compatible with the UK’s Treaty obligations as well as set limits on future best-interests decision-making by the UK courts.”
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, which has been supporting the family’s case, said: “It is vital that justice is seen to be done. I am sincerely grateful that the UN is taking this matter seriously and scrutinising the UK’s decision making to ensure full transparency.”
Find out more about Archie Battersbee