Panorama at Winterbourne View: the human rights angle – Lucy Series

3 June 2011 by

I watched Panorama’s exposé of institutional abuse of adults with learning disabilities at Winterbourne View Hospital with mounting horror.    What legal mechanisms were available to prevent abuses like this, or bring  justice to victims?

There can be little doubt that the acts of the carers towards the patients were inhuman and degrading, a violation of their Article 3 rights.  It is highly questionable whether the establishment fulfilled their rights to privacy and dignity under Article 8, the right to private and family life.

The footage was filmed in a private hospital run by Castlebeck.  This would be a functional public authority under s6 Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) following the decision in R(A) v Partnerships in Care (2002).  The actions of the hospital authorities could therefore be subject to judicial review proceedings under s7 HRA in addition to any other civil claims the victims might decide to bring.  However institutional abuses do not only occur in hospitals.

In Cornwall in 2006 widespread abuse of adults, of a very similar character to that shown in Panorama, was found in inpatient ‘treatment centres’, but also in supported living services (see report).  Those services were NHS run, but privately run supported living services may not be functional public authorities under the s6 HRA. In YL v Birmingham City Council (2007) private sector care homes were found not to be functional public authorities.

Following a public outcry over this ruling the government amended the law. Under s145 Health and Social Care Act 2008 care homes providing services for people placed under the National Assistance Act 1948 are exercising functions of a public nature under the HRA.  Services arranged under the provisions of other acts, self-funding placements, or care delivered through domiciliary care agencies are not covered by this amendment, and thus may not be subject to judicial review.  Civil claims in these cases may have to rely on the provisions of the common law.

It is possible that the Article 5 rights of patients at Winterbourne View may also have been violated.  The most recent report of the Mental Health Act Commission stated that 13 patients were detained under the Mental Health Act.  It is an open question – but one that I hope is taken up by the CQC and local authority when they conduct their investigation – whether any other ‘voluntary’ patients there were unlawfully detained.

Following the Bournewood judgment and the recent ruling in P & Q (2011), confinement without capacitous consent to hospitals designed for detention is likely to be a deprivation of liberty.  If patients were de facto detained, outside the provisions of the Mental Health Act or the Mental Capacity Act deprivation of liberty safeguards, there may be a case to answer for unlawful detention or false imprisonment.  Even if patients were detained under the DoLS, further questions may be asked as to whether the detention was in their ‘best interests’ and whether any conditions of authorisation were complied with.

Any civil claim may decide to include the commissioning body in proceedings, if it is felt they breached their positive obligations to protect the rights of those they placed in the service.  The majority of placements were likely to have been commissioned and funded by local authorities or PCTs, and they will share some degree of responsibility for ensuring their rights are protected.

It is an interesting question whether civil proceedings might also be brought against the Care Quality Commission, particularly in view of the fact they failed to inspect the service after they received several warnings about abuse from former staff there and the local authority themselves.  The CQC acknowledged this was an unforgiveable error of judgment and apologised.  In a wider context, many are concerned that the decline in CQC inspections will put care service users at risk.

This may also have implications for the UK’s compliance with OPCAT, which requires regular visitation of places of detention to prevent inhuman or degrading treatment. This case does raise questions about the accountability of the CQC as a public authority with responsibilities under the HRA, although bringing a case would almost certainly require development of a doctrine of positive obligations of regulators themselves.  No doubt in the majority of cases it would be extremely difficult to prove any liability of regulatory bodies, but perhaps it might be possible if the courts concurred that this was a clear error of judgment.

The police are investigating what occurred at Winterbourne View for criminal offences.  In addition to possible crimes of assault and other offences against the person, the police may also consider prosecutions for the new offence of ill treatment or neglect of a person who lacks mental capacity under s44 Mental Capacity Act 2005, or ill treatment of patients under s127 Mental Health Act 1983.  When considering whether acts of restraint were lawful, the police should take into account s6 MCA – this codifies the common law defence of necessity.  Restraint is only lawful if it is believed to be necessary, and is proportionate to the likelihood and severity of the harm that would be suffered otherwise.

Whilst I hope that prosecutions will be brought wherever possible, it should be acknowledged that in situations like this without the presence of a Panorama crew it can be extremely difficult to get justice through criminal law.  Despite an extensive police investigation into the Cornwall abuse case, no prosecutions were ever brought.  In part this was because the limitation period had expired for many offences, but it was also because the police struggled to satisfy the evidential test.  I have written elsewhere about why it can be very difficult to secure convictions for abuse of people in care settings, especially if they have cognitive disabilities.

As Lord Hoffman has noted, human rights instruments were developed against a backdrop of a moral and political philosophy of man as an independent and self-reliant agent.  For people with cognitive disabilities in institutional care this assumption may not hold true, and we should be careful not to fetishize criminal prosecutions and judicial review as adequate or sufficient methods of human rights protection.

To that end, instruments may need to be adapted to ensure the rights of people who will have especial difficulty giving evidence in criminal cases, or instructing a solicitor to bring a civil claim, are upheld.  The safeguards in the Mental Health Act and the deprivation of liberty safeguards should, in theory at least, go part way towards that.  The positive obligations of organisations involved in the provision, commissioning and regulation of care will also have an important role to play.

Lucy Series is researching mental capacity and human rights in community care settings for her doctoral thesis in law.  She writes a blog at The Small Places.

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  1. zoe says:

    After watching this report from Panorama I was utterly shocked and in horror at the levels of abuse and torture that these vulnerable people suffered at the hands of people that should have cared. Their carer’s lacked the basic human values of respect, empathy, compassion which should be the basic foundations when caring for vulnerable people.

    It seems that although the correct procedures were followed by other members of staff to report this abuse it was allowed to continue. I am a professional who works everyday to ensure people with Learning Disabilities and other vulnerable people do not have to suffer this level of abuse. This report reminded me of the stories I have read in the past from within Asylums and Workhouses.

    The report has had a positive impact in that it will highlight this type of institutional abuse and we can all play our part in ending this.

  2. Paul Williams says:

    The problem at CQC is not solved by more inspections. The fact is that the judgements of inspectors are often wrong! Here are the ratings given to Winterbourne View in their most recent inspection:

    Latest Report (December 2009) by CQC on Winterbourne View

    Number Standard Topic Assessment
    C24 Controlled Drugs Almost met
    C23 Ordering and Storage of Medicines Almost met
    M8 Suicide Prevention Met
    M32 Management of Serious/Untoward
    Incidents, AdverseHealth Events and
    Near Misses Met
    M34 Patients Absconding Met
    M35 Patient Restraint and Physical
    Interventions Met

    Clinical and cost effectiveness
    Number Standard Assessment
    C4 Monitoring Quality Met
    M4 Clinical Audit Met

    Number Standard Assessment
    C30 Completion of Health Records Met
    M6 Staff Training Almost met
    M22 Patient’s Records Met

    Patient focus
    Number Standard Assessment
    C1 Information for Patients Almost met
    C14 Complaints Process Met
    C15 Information for Patients about
    Complaints Met
    M10 Resuscitation Procedures Met
    M27 Quality of Life for Patients Met
    Care environment and amenities
    Number Standard Topic Assessment
    A9 Health and Safety Almost met

    In the light of the true situation, these ratings are a complete farce!

  3. Casdok says:

    I hope all the implications are far reaching.

  4. susan says:

    Abuse also comes from Psychiatrists and so-called professionals in a team. I have a severely mentally ill daughter who is up to her neck on medication and spoken of her wishes to be reduced off medication which gives her terrible side effects and does not seem to work, but this has been totally ignored by these doctors. Not many people speak out about mental health and this is why they get away with things. When a person is constantly admitted into hospital quite often the level of medication is raised against their wishes. The council and the so-called social services teams are also abusers as they manipulate, deny and ignore what a patient wants and in order to save money keep putting someone back time and time again under the same scheme even if there is a risk to lives. Doctors chemically abuse mental health patients against their human rights and there is nowhere safe provided for that patient to go in and be reduced off medication. The CQC has only limited powers and cannot intervene in individual cases. The Minister of Mental Health prefers not to involve himself and the GMC cannot do anything to intervene individually in cases where a doctor raises medication against a patient’s wishes. The patient is so weak they go along with things in the end and it just makes them easy to control by these doctors who are the biggest abusers of all and get away with things. There are so many organisations like NICE who set out guidelines but these are ignored with family being dismissed and a team completely taking over and manipulating. What is the point in such organisations when they have no powers to make sure their recommendations are adhered to. There is no concern for health and safety if a patient is volatile and unstable – this is the sixth time the person I care for has been dumped back under the same scheme where she cannot cope and has been denied extra backing through direct payments – to save money at the expense of lives. This is neglect and abuse by the so-called professionals and if you live in one area you are stuck with the same team and have no choice. This is wrong. A team will stick together against the family and quite often the only thing on offer is medication after medication. Psychiatrists should not be allowed so much power in order to abuse vulnerable patients and they should be much more accountable and not ignore the concerns of families- the Home Treatment Team do not give proper backup. Also it is misleading that the CQC still shows ratings of care homes going back several years and this can give a false impression. If a care home is no good or something bad has happened there then the old ratings should not even appear as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’.

    I agree the CQC should give frequent spot checks without warning and they should look to visit on the acute mental health wards later in the evenings – this is the time to visit to get a clear picture. The CQC should have more power to intervene in individual cases especially if there is risk to life and health and safety.

  5. Tim says:

    This’ll be a good test to see whether Keir Starmer means what he says:

    There needs to be ‘zero tolerance’ of criminal acts against vulnerable people, especially in this case, as the abuse is hidden away, making the breach of trust all the more culpable.

  6. IAN JOSEPHS says:

    If inspections of care homes etc took the form of frequent spot checks with no warning given(instead of long pre-arranged visits) ,that would go a long way to eradicating most of the horrific ill treatments of the elderly of the sort depicted on Panorama;

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