Unauthorised solitary confinement incompatible with prisoner’s rights
15 October 2015
Shahid v. Scottish Ministers (Scotland),  UKSC 58 – read judgment.
The Supreme Court has held that the continuation of a prisoner’s solitary confinement for safety reasons was not authorised under domestic rules and incompatible with the right to private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”).
by Fraser Simpson
The appellant, Imran Shahid, was first placed in solitary confinement in October 2005. His confinement was continued following his conviction for the racially motivated murder of a 15-year-old boy. The decision was based on threats made against the appellant. This period of solitary confinement continued until his eventual reintegration into the general prison population in August 2010.
The appellant had originally challenged his continued segregation in both the Outer and Inner Houses of the Court of Session (see this previous post for a discussion of the Inner House’s opinion). The Scottish courts refused his complaints and held that his prolonged solitary confinement accorded with both domestic law and Articles 3 and 8, ECHR.
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision delivered by Lord Reed, held that not only was the continued segregation invalid according to domestic law, but it also amounted to a violation of Article 8.
Compliance with domestic law?
The relevant rules concerning the power to place a prisoner in solitary confinement were, at the relevant time, contained in the Prisons and Young Offenders Institutions (Scotland) Rules 1994 and 2006. Despite the amendment of the Rules during the relevant period, the core provisions relating to the grounds for segregation and the time limits imposed remained the same. The purpose of Shahid’s segregation – to maintain good order and protect him – was not in question. Shahid instead contended that certain time limits contained within the Prison Rules relating to the continuation of a period of segregation had not been complied with. The relevant provision, Rule 94(5), states:
“A prisoner who has been removed from association … shall not be subject to such removal for a period in excess of 72 hours from the time of the order, except where the Scottish Ministers have granted written authority … prior to the expiry of the said period of 72 hours.”
Three of the orders made authorising prolongation of Shahid’s segregation were made by the Scottish Ministers after the expiration of this 72-hour limit.
The lower courts considered that such delays did not impact upon the validity of the orders that authorised continued segregation. Importance was placed upon the relatively limited extent to which the orders were late (17, 44 and 47 hours) and the fact that the purpose of the reviews, to ensure that segregation was maintained for only as long as necessary, was not frustrated by such limited delays.
Lord Reed, adopting an alternative construction of the Prison Rules, held that any order made after the expiration of the 72-hour period was automatically invalid (see paragraphs 15-18 of the judgment). His conclusion that the late orders authorising continued segregation of the appellant were invalid, and that a period of 14 months of segregation therefore had no legal basis, is important in the context of the Article 8 challenge.
The Scottish Ministers accepted that the placement of the appellant in solitary confinement was an interference with his right to respect for private life under Article 8. Consequently, it was for them to show that the measure was in accordance with the law, in pursuance of a legitimate aim, and a proportionate interference in light of the pursued aim.
Lord Reed was quick to point out that his previous conclusion, that the late authorisations had rendered invalid the subsequent segregation, would result in certain periods of the segregation not being “in accordance with the law”. Accordingly, such periods of segregation could not be justified under Article 8(2).
Lord Reed went on to consider that the appropriate prison authorities had not always been independently making the decisions to continue the segregation of the appellant but instead, on some occasions, had been unduly influenced by the decisions and recommendations of a non-statutory advisory body. The need for a statutory decision making power to be exercised by the individual, or body, that has been conferred such a power had not been satisfied (see R v. Deputy Governor of Parkhurst Prison Ex p Hague,  1 AC 58). Accordingly, there was a failure to satisfy the lawfulness criterion within Article 8(2).
The Supreme Court moved on to consider the proportionality of Shahid’s continued segregation. The lower courts, in holding that the continued segregation was proportionate, opined that it was the only practicable way of dealing with the threats made against the appellant. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, listed a number of potential alternatives to solitary confinement that could have achieved the aim of protecting the appellant from attacks, including relocating the appellant to another UK prison. Irrespective of such alternatives, the Supreme Court decided that earlier steps could have been taken to promote Shahid’s reintegration. A plan to reintegrate the prisoner had only been developed after four and a half years of almost continuous segregation. Failure to take such steps resulted in the segregation being disproportionate and a violation of Article 8.
However, the Supreme Court considered that the appellant had not suffered any prejudice. If the Article 8 violations had not occurred then there was no evidence to show he would have been returned to the general population sooner.
Additionally, the extent to which his right to respect for his private life under Article 8 had been infringed was limited considering the negative attitudes other prisoners harboured towards him.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court considered that there was no need to make an award for damages despite the appellant seeking £6,000.
The appellant also complained that the segregation was incompatible with his right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment under Article 3, ECHR. The European Court of Human Rights has recognised the potentially damaging effect that continued solitary confinement can have upon the mental and social facilities of an individual (see Ahmad v United Kingdom, (2013) 56 EHRR 1, paragraph 207).
However, the use of such measures for disciplinary, security, or protective reasons does not automatically contravene Article 3. In assessing whether the measure was compatible with Article 3, the Supreme Court considered the conditions and duration of the detention as well as the motivation for such a measure and its impact on the appellant.
The Court concluded that the measure did not attain the minimum level of severity to engage Article 3. The appellant was kept in suitable accommodation and the ability to exercise, receive visitors and associate with other prisoners pointed towards the treatment falling short of the Article 3 threshold. Despite the length of the segregation extending beyond four years, the fact it was imposed in the interests of the appellant’s safety were also of relevance.
The use of segregation in prisons should always be considered as a serious measure. Indeed, the Council of Europe’s Committee on the Prevention of Torture advises that for punitive purposes any stint should be limited to 14 days (see the CPT’s 21st General Report, (2011), page 40).
The strict interpretation of the 72-hour limitation within the Prison Rules by Lord Reed results in appropriate weight being attributed to the decision to segregate. As Lord Reed pointed out, this allows early consideration of the necessity of the segregation by officials external to the prison. This provides an important procedural safeguard, even at an early stage of segregation.
However, if the 72-hour limit were strictly applied in this instance, there could be negative practical repercussions. When continued segregation was without legal basis, would the prison officials be under a duty to return the appellant to general population even if this would endanger his safety? An analogous situation was raised by the Inner House in support of their interpretation of the Prison Rules (paragraph 24 of the Inner House Judgment). Lord Reed answered these concerns by outlining that the officials would also be subject to a duty under s.6(1) of the Human Rights Act to secure the safety of the prisoner in accordance with Article 2 and 3, ECHR. If there was a serious risk to life then the prisoner could remain in segregation in accordance with domestic law using such protections as justification.
Interestingly, such an argument was not substantively raised on behalf of the Scottish Ministers in order to justify the periods for which there was a lack of authorisation.