#RightfulLives – all the court judgments upholding the human rights of autistic and / or learning disabled people

Edited 25 September 2018 to add reference to two further cases – G v E and Cheshire West

The #RightfulLives online exhibition launched today (24 September 2018). It is an incredible collection of the voices and views of autistic and / or learning disabled people and their families, grouped under the key Articles from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (.pdf). The ECHR is of course incorporated (given force in domestic law) by the Human Rights Act 1998. The courts are also increasingly interpreting the EHCR rights by reference to the other key international conventions, including here the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

I was struck by the following section of the intro to #RightfulLives – ‘The idea for the exhibition came about through a conversation about how the legal framework of the Human Rights Act seems to barely touch the lives of people with learning disabilities. Since then we have only been able to find three published successful court judgements where the HRA has been apply to learning disabled people’.

My immediate thought was – ‘that can’t be right’ – and it’s not, but it’s also not out by much. Below is the (very short) list of court judgments I have been able to locate (thanks Twitter law geek buddies) which meet the following criteria:

  1. The case involves at least one autistic and / or learning disabled claimant. This means I had to leave out Bernard v Enfield, the only case where the domestic courts have found a breach of the positive obligation to provide welfare support under Article 8 ECHR, because Mrs B was a physically disabled person.
  2. The claim was brought under at least one of the ECHR Articles. This significantly reduces the list, because very often the court is considering the rights of autistic and / or learning disabled people through the lens of other legislation, most notably the Mental Capacity Act 2005.
  3. The claim was brought in the domestic courts since the HRA came into force (the year 2000). This rules out earlier claims such as the landmark ‘Bournewood’ case (HL v UK) which gave rise to the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS).
  4. The claim didn’t settle. Very many claims made in relation to breaches of human rights will be settled by the public body prior to any hearing, perhaps with an apology and / or a payment of compensation. One example of such a claim which sticks in my mind was a case I was instructed on for a young person who had been separated from her family against her will, where a significant payment was made by the public body in settlement. Of course the consequence of this is that usually no-one else knows what went wrong…
  5. The claim succeeded. This ruled out at least one notable case, being A v Essex, the Supreme Court decision on a claim under the right to education (Article 2 of the First Protocol to the ECHR) for an autistic child which failed on its facts, although left open the possibility of future claims where children are denied access to education which is available under the domestic system.

So this is the list of all the cases, to the best of my knowledge, which meet the above criteria – in date order. Most but not all involve unlawful deprivations of liberty and resulting breaches of Articles 5 and / or 8 ECHR. If I’ve missed any, and I hope I have, please let me know in the comments below – and please make sure you visit and promote the #RightfulLives exhibition to help make the human rights of autistic and / or learning disabled people a reality.

  1. R (A, B, X and Y) v East Sussex CC (No 2) [2003] EWHC 167 (Admin) – this was a very early HRA case where Mr Justice Munby (before his elevation to the Court of Appeal) considered the legality of a local authority’s policy in relation to manual handling of two sisters, who were young women with profound physical and learning disabilities. Munby J memorably held (in the context of Article 8 ECHR) that ‘The recognition and protection of human dignity is one of the core values — in truth the core value — of our society and, indeed, of all the societies which are part of the European family of nations and which have embraced the principles of the Convention.’ The Judge referred further to ‘the enhanced degree of protection which may be called for when the human dignity at stake is that of someone who is, as A and B are in the present case, so disabled as to be critically dependent on the help of others for even the simplest and most basic tasks of day to day living.’ He further stated that ‘The other important concept embraced in the “physical and psychological integrity” protected by article 8 is the right of the disabled to participate in the life of the community and to have what has been described….as “access to essential economic and social activities and to an appropriate range of recreational and cultural activities”. This is matched by the positive obligation of the State to take appropriate measures designed to ensure to the greatest extent feasible that a disabled person is not “so circumscribed and so isolated as to be deprived of the possibility of developing his personality”.’ As such the Judge held that ‘A and B’s rights to participate in the life of the community and to have access to an appropriate range of recreational and cultural activities are so important that a significant amount of manual handling may be required. ‘ It is striking that so few later cases have developed the important concepts and obligations identified in A, B, X and Y.
  2. G v E and A Local Authority [2010] EWHC 621 (Fam)– this case concerned a 19 year old with a rare and complex genetic condition resulting in a severe learning disability. As well as issues of capacity, residence and contact, the Court of Protection was asked to determine whether the local authority had unlawfully detained E in breach of Article 5 ECHR (right to liberty) and / or interfered with his rights under Article 8 ECHR (right to respect for family and private life) by removing him from the care of his former foster carer. Baker J held that ‘by removing E from F’s care, placing him at the V Unit and then moving him to Z Road without complying with the procedures laid down in the MCA, either the DOLS procedure in Schedule A1 or an application to the court under ss 16 and 48, the local authority infringed E’s rights under Article 5 ECHR.’ Furthermore ‘the removal from F’s care, the failure to give any or any adequate consideration to his family life with F at the time of the removal or for many months thereafter, the failure adequately to involve F in the decision-making process about E’s future, and the impediments to contact between E and F for several months after his removal constituted a serious breach of his Article 8 rights.’ In conclusion Baker J held that ‘The errors perpetrated by the local authority in this case are grave and serious.’
  3. Hillingdon LBC v Neary [2011] EWHC 1377 (COP)  – the term ‘landmark case’ is horribly over-used, but Steven Neary’s case undoubtedly justifies it. As well as a wholesale failure to comply with the MCA in depriving Steven of his liberty, the Judge also found a number of breaches of Articles 5 and 8 ECHR. See para 32 of the full judgment, set out here, for the Court’s conclusions on the human rights issues:
    (1) By keeping Steven Neary away from his home between 5 January 2010 and 23 December 2010, Hillingdon unlawfully breached his right to respect for his family life, contrary to Article 8 ECHR.
    (2) By keeping Steven Neary at the support unit between 5 January 2010 and 14 April 2010, Hillingdon unlawfully deprived him of his liberty, contrary to Article 5(1) ECHR.(3) By keeping Steven Neary at the support unit between 15 April 2010 and 23 December 2010, and notwithstanding the urgent DOL authorisation granted by Hillingdon as managing authority and the three standard DOL authorisations granted by Hillingdon as supervisory body, Hillingdon unlawfully deprived him of his liberty, contrary to Article 5 (1) ECHR.
    (4) By failing to
    (i) refer the matter to the Court of Protection sooner than 28 October 2010, and/or
    (ii) appoint an Independent Mental Capacity Advocate for Steven sooner than 29 October 2010, and/or
    (iii) conduct an effective review of the DOL best interests assessments under Part 8 of Schedule A1 of the Mental Capacity Act 2005,
    Hillingdon deprived Steven Neary of his entitlement to take proceedings for a speedy decision by a court on the lawfulness of his detention, contrary to Article 5 (4) ECHR 
  4. R (C) v A Local Authority and others [2011] EWHC 1539 (Admin) – the ‘Blue Room’ case, see also the full judgment. C was an 18 year old boy who was regularly secluded in a padded blue room at his school. The local authority denied any breach of C’s Article 3 (freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment) and/or Article 8 ECHR rights, but conceded that ‘when he is secluded and restrained in the blue room …that amounts to a deprivation of his liberty and in so far as that is not authorised by the court, such a deprivation is unlawful and in breach of his article 5 ECHR rights.’ The Judge held that ‘Neither the local authority nor the organisation operating the school had any power to deprive C of his liberty.’ The Judge adjourned the Article 3 and 8 Article issues for further hearing alongside the claim for damages. I cannot find any published judgment on these issues, so it is likely that these aspects of the claim settled.
  5. Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis v ZH[2013] EWCA Civ 69 – the only case where the Court of Appeal has considered the ECHR rights of an autistic or learning disabled person. The Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the trial judge that the Met Police had breached the Article 3, Article 5 and Article 8 rights of a 19 year old young man who had been detained and placed in the cage of a police van after becoming distressed at a swimming pool. In particular the trial judge was not wrong to find that the treatment meted out to ZH reached the minimum level of severity required to find a breach of Article 3, in terms of inhuman and degrading treatment. Lord Dyson MR found that ‘Although the police officers were acting in what they thought to be the best interests of ZH, on the judge’s findings they made serious errors which led them to treat this vulnerable young man in a way which caused him great distress and anguish…nothing could justify the manner in which they restrained ZH.’ 
  6. Cheshire West and Chester v P [2014] UKSC 19 – undoubtedly the most celebrated of these cases, Cheshire West was a resounding affirmation by the Supreme Court that disabled people’s right to liberty is the same as any other person. The Supreme Court was in fact considering three cases involving learning disabled people, all of whom were held (by the majority) be deprived of their liberty in their living arrangements. Lady Hale held that it was ‘axiomatic that people with disabilities, both mental and physical, have the same human rights as the rest of the human race. It may be that those rights have sometimes to be limited or restricted because of their disabilities, but the starting point should be the same as that for everyone else. This flows inexorably from the universal character of human rights, founded on the inherent dignity of all human beings, and is confirmed in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.’ As such, ‘what it means to be deprived of liberty must be the same for everyone, whether or not they have physical or mental disabilities. If it would be a deprivation of my liberty to be obliged to live in a particular place, subject to constant monitoring and control, only allowed out with close supervision, and unable to move away without permission even if such an opportunity became available, then it must also be a deprivation of the liberty of a disabled person. The fact that my living arrangements are comfortable, and indeed make my life as enjoyable as it could possibly be, should make no difference. A gilded cage is still a cage.’ The practical consequences of Cheshire West are that (1) many more disabled people are deprived of their liberty than was previously understood to be the case and (2) until Parliament changes the law, many of these deprivations of liberty will need to be authorised by the Court of Protection to avoid a breach of Article 5 ECHR (leading to a raft of follow on litigation as to how to make this work in practice).
  7. Somerset v MK [2014] EWCOP B25 – Somerset clearly hadn’t paid attention to the guidance from Peter Jackson J in Steven Neary’s case, which HHJ Marston held ‘has many depressing similarities to this one’. The Judge held that his findings ‘illustrate a blatant disregard of the process of the MCA and a failure to respect the rights of both P and her family under the ECHR. In fact it seems to me that it is worse than that, because here the workers on the ground did not just disregard the process of the MCA they did not know what the process was and no one higher up the structure seems to have advised them correctly about it.’ Somerset conceded that MK had been subjected to an unlawful deprivation of liberty and that there had been an unlawful interference with the family’s Article 8 rights.
  8. C and C v Governing Body of a School [2018] UKUT 269 (AAC) – the most recent case was a challenge to the application of the ‘tendency to physical abuse’ exclusion from the protection of the Equality Act 2010 to autistic children in school. The Upper Tribunal held that the relevant regulation resulted in unlawful discrimination contrary to Article 14 ECHR and so had to be disapplied for this group of children. The decision (which has not been appealed) means that head teachers will have to justify decisions to exclude children with autism, ADHD etc in order to avoid unlawful disability discrimination, even where these children have behaved violently or aggressively.
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