Was local authority responsible for harassment campaign against vulnerable adults?
25 November 2010
Application no. 32666/10 by X, Y & Z against the UK, lodged on 8 June 2010 – Read statement of facts
In a potentially landmark case, the European Court has been asked to determine the extent to which a local authority is under a duty prevent a breach of a person’s rights under Articles 3 (against inhuman and degrading treatment) and 8 (home and family life) in a case where two people with learning difficulties were violently harassed and threatened by a group of teenage youths.
The case concerns vulnerable adults who rely on social services. X and Y, who are married, both have learning difficulties. Z is the mother of X, and acted as a carer and advocate for both X and Y. X and Y lived in Hounslow Borough with Y’s two young children. Three local authority departments were involved with X and Y’s family, providing for their housing needs and allocating social workers for both the adults and children. Over a period from August 1999 until November 2000, X and Y were continually harassed and threatened by a group of teenage youths, who used the flat as a general ‘doss house’, dumping stolen goods, having sex and staying overnight.
From April 1999 until November 2000 concerns were frequently raised by Z and social workers that the family were vulnerable and needy and required urgent re-housing, especially as they were being bullied by the youths. In October 2000 X was assaulted by one of the youths and the youth’s father and required hospital treatment, but he was too frightened to go to the police.
On the weekend of 17 – 19 November 2000, the family were effectively imprisoned in their flat by the youths and repeatedly assaulted and abused. X and Y were physically and sexually assaulted, forced to perform sexual acts and had their possessions thrown over the balcony. X was locked in the dark, forced to eat faeces and drink urine, slashed with a knife and had pepper and fluid forced into his eyes. The children were also abused and assaulted, and were made to watch the abuse of X and Y. X finally managed to escape and raise the alarm. Following the events X and Y were cared for by Z before being moved to alternative accommodation. Three of the youths were prosecuted and given prison sentences.
X and Y brought a claim for damages against the local authority under negligence and section 7 HRA 1998 (X and Y v Hounslow LBC  EWHC 1168 (QB)). The HRA claim was argued on the basis that X and Y’s rights under Articles 3 and 8 of the ECHR had been breached in that the local authority had failed to take positive steps to prevent the violation of these rights. At first instance Maddison J held that the local authority owed a duty of care because: (1) it was reasonably foreseeable that X and Y would be attacked by the youths; (2) that their relationship with the local authority was sufficiently proximate to warrant the imposition of a duty of care, and (3) it was fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty on the local authority because they should have invoked their emergency housing transfer system, which would have urgently moved them from the flat. As to the HRA 1998 claim, the judge held that it was out of time but he would have extended the time limit under section 7(5). However, he did not consider it necessary to determine the HRA claim because he had taken its impact into account when deciding whether the local authority owed a duty.
The Court of Appeal (X and Y v Hounslow LBC  EWCA Civ 286) allowed the local authority’s appeal on the grounds that no duty of care was owed. In any event, even if there had been a duty of care, the Court would not have accepted that the duty had been breached. However, the Court did not consider the HRA claim. A petition by X and Y to appeal to the House of Lords was dismissed.
The application was made to the European Court of Human Rights with the assistance of the AIRE Centre. It raised the following complaints:
- That X and Y’s rights under Article 3 were breached because the local authority knew or ought to have known that they were at risk of serious harm and was therefore in breach of its positive obligations to take measures necessary to prevent such harm occurring.
- That Z’s rights under Article 3 were also breached because the local authority’s failure to prevent the abuse also constituted inhuman treatment of her;
- That the court’s failure to consider their claim under the HRA 1998 violated X and Y’s right to a fair trial under Article 6(1);
- That the local authority’s failure to take reasonable measures that could have prevented or mitigated the harm was a breach of Article 8 (moral and physical integrity);
- That in finding that the local authority did not owe them a duty of care, the domestic courts deprived them of an effective remedy with the national legal system for violations of Articles 3 and 8 contrary to Article 13.
The application was communicated by the Court in October 2010 to the UK Government, who have been requested to submit observations on the admissibility and merits of the application.
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