R (Gentle) v Prime Minister

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
Judgment Date09 April 2008
Neutral Citation[2008] UKHL 20
CourtHouse of Lords
Date09 April 2008
Docket Number([2008] UKHL 20)
R (on the application of Gentle (FC)

and another (FC))

The Prime Minister

and others


[2008] UKHL 20

Appellate Committee

Lord Bingham of Cornhill

Lord Hoffmann

Lord Hope of Craighead

Lord Scott of Foscote

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

Baroness Hale of Richmond

Lord Carswell

Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood

Lord Mance



Rabinder Singh QC

Michael Fordham QC

Alex Bailin

(Public Interest Lawyers)


Jonathan Sumption QC

Philip Sales QC

Jemima Stratford

(Instructed by the Treasury Solicitors)


My Lords,


The appellants are the mothers of two young men, both aged 19, who lost their lives while serving in the British army in Iraq. Fusilier Gordon Campbell Gentle was serving with the 1st Battalion The Royal Highland Fusiliers when he was killed by a roadside bomb on 28 June 2004. Trooper David Jeffrey Clarke was serving with the Queen's Royal Lancers when he was killed by "friendly fire" on 25 March 2003. These deaths have been fully investigated at duly-constituted inquests conducted in the United Kingdom, and there are no outstanding questions about when, where and in what circumstances they respectively died.


The appellants contend that by virtue of sections 1 and 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998 and article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights they have an enforceable legal right sounding in domestic law to require Her Majesty's Government to establish an independent public enquiry into all the circumstances surrounding the invasion of Iraq by British forces in 2003, including in particular the steps taken by the Government to obtain timely legal advice on the legality of the invasion. The corollary of this right is a duty binding on the Government to establish such an enquiry. It is a duty owed, the appellants say, to all members of our forces deployed to Iraq and their families, but would presumably be owed also to all military personnel liable to be deployed to Iraq (whether in the regular or the Territorial Army) and their families. In these proceedings the appellants do not ask the House to decide whether such an enquiry would be desirable in the public interest, a question inappropriate for consideration by the House in its judicial capacity, but only whether they have a right to require such an enquiry to be held. Nor do they invite the House to consider whether the use of armed force by the United Kingdom in Iraq in 2003 was lawful or unlawful in international law. That question would also fall outside the remit of the public independent enquiry the appellants' claim, which would be directed to the process by which the Government obtained advice and not to the correctness of the advice it received or should have received. This gives the proceedings an appearance of unreality since, relying on a number of familiar documents now in the public domain, the appellants' underlying complaint (which they would have wished to advance) is that the UK went to war to achieve an unlawful aim, without proper United Nations sanction and on the strength of legal advice which was adverse or equivocal until very shortly before the invasion. The correctness of this complaint is not, I repeat, a matter which falls for decision in this appeal.


The thrust of the appellants' case, put very simply, is this. Article 2 of the Convention imposes a duty on member states to protect life. This duty extends to the lives of soldiers. Armed conflict exposes soldiers to the risk of death. Therefore a state should take timely steps to obtain reliable legal advice before committing its troops to armed conflict. Had the UK done this before invading Iraq in March 2003, it would arguably not have invaded. Had it not invaded, Fusilier Gentle and Trooper Clarke would not have been killed.


The bedrock of the appellants' argument is article 2 of the Convention which, so far as relevant, provides: "Everyone's right to life shall be protected by law". This apparently simple provision has been the subject of much judicial exegesis, the effect of which the House summarised in R (Middleton) v West Somerset Coroner [2004] UKHL 10, [2004] 2 AC 182, para 2:

"The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly interpreted article 2 of the European Convention as imposing on member states substantive obligations not to take life without justification and also to establish a framework of laws, precautions, procedures and means of enforcement which will, to the greatest extent reasonably practicable, protect life. See, for example, LCB v United Kingdom (1998) 27 EHRR 212, para 36; Osman v United Kingdom (1998) 29 EHRR 245; Powell v United Kingdom Reports of Judgments and Decisions 2000-V, p 397; Keenan v United Kingdom (2001) 33 EHRR 913, paras 88-90; Edwards v United Kingdom (2002) 35 EHRR 487, para 54; Calvelli and Ciglio v Italy Reports of Judgments and Decisions 2002-I, p I; Öneryildiz v Turkey (Application No 48939/99) ( unreported) 18 June 2002."

There have been further decisions since that summary was given, but it was not suggested in argument that they made it inaccurate or in need of modification.


This substantive obligation derived from article 2 has been supplemented by a procedural obligation, the effect of which the House also summarised in Middleton, para 3:

"The European Court has also interpreted article 2 as imposing on member states a procedural obligation to initiate an effective public investigation by an independent official body into any death occurring in circumstances in which it appears that one or other of the foregoing substantive obligations has been, or may have been, violated and it appears that agents of the state are, or may be, in some way implicated. See, for example, Taylor v United Kingdom (1994) 79-A DR 127, 137; McCann v United Kingdom (1995) 21 EHRR 97, para 161; Powell v United Kingdom Reports of Judgments and Decisions 2000-V, p 397; Salman v Turkey (2000) 34 EHRR 425, para 104; Sieminska v Poland (Application No 37602/97) ( unreported) 29 March 2001; Jordan v United Kingdom (2001) 37 EHRR 52, para 105; Edwards v United Kingdom, 35 EHRR 487, para 69; Öneryildiz v Turkey, 18 June 2002, paras 90-91; Mastromatteo v Italy (Application No 37703/97) ( unreported) 24 October 2002."

This procedural duty does not derive from the express terms of article 2, but was no doubt implied in order to make sure that the substantive right was effective in practice. There have again been further decisions on the procedural obligation, but it is not suggested that any modification of the summary is called for. In Middleton the House was required to consider whether the rules and authorities formerly governing inquests permitted the coroner to conduct an enquiry which fulfilled the UK's procedural obligation under article 2. It held that in some cases they did not. In such cases, the House ruled, the question "how, when and where the deceased came by his death" should be understood to mean "when, where and by what means and in what circumstances the deceased came by his death": see para 35. In later Strasbourg authorities this approach has not been criticised as failing to meet the UK's obligation under article 2.


It is the procedural obligation under article 2 that the appellants seek to invoke in this case. But it is clear (see para 3 of Middleton, quoted above, Jordan v United Kingdom (2001) 37 EHRR 52, para 105; Edwards v United Kingdom (2002) 35 EHRR 487, para 69; In re McKerr [2004] UKHL 12, [2004] 1 WLR 807, paras 18-22) that the procedural obligation under article 2 is parasitic upon the existence of the substantive right, and cannot exist independently. Thus to make good their procedural right to the enquiry they seek the appellants must show, as they accept, at least an arguable case that the substantive right arises on the facts of these cases. Unless they can do that, their claim must fail. Despite the careful and detailed submissions of Mr Rabinder Singh QC on their behalf, I am driven to conclude that they cannot establish such a right.


As the summary in para 2 of Middleton makes clear, article 2 not only prohibits the unjustified taking of life by the state and its agents, but also requires a framework of laws, precautions, procedures and means of enforcement which will, to the greatest extent reasonably practicable, protect life. In either case the question whether the state unjustifiably took life or failed to protect it will arise in respect of a particular deceased person, as it did at the inquests pertaining to Fusilier Gentle and Trooper Clarke. There is in my opinion no warrant for reading article 2 as a generalised provision protective of life, irrespective of any specific death or threat. In the present case the appellants, tragically, lost their sons. But the right and the duty they seek to assert do not depend on their sons' deaths. If they exist at all they would have arisen before either young man was killed and would exist had both young men survived the conflict.


It may be significant that article 2 has never been held to apply to the process of deciding on the lawfulness of a resort to arms, despite the number of occasions on which member states have made that decision over the past half century and despite the fact that such a decision almost inevitably exposes military personnel to the risk of fatalities. There are, I think, three main reasons for this:

(1) The lawfulness of military action has no immediate bearing on the risk of fatalities. Indeed, a flagrantly unlawful surprise attack such, for instance, as that which the Japanese made on the US fleet at Pearl Harbour, is likely to minimise the risk to the aggressor. In this case, as Mr Sumption QC for the respondents pointed out, Fusilier Gentle died after...

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