4 May 2010
Savage (Respondent) v South Essex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust (Appellant)  EWHC 865 (QB) – Read judgment
The High Court has ruled that a mental health trust was responsible for the death of a patient who threw herself in front of a train. The judgment marks the end of a long and complex case, and a significant shift in the law relating to public authorities’ responsibility to preserve life under the Human Rights Act. The trust must now pay Mrs Savage’s daughter £10,000 in compensation.
Carol Savage committed suicide on 5 July 2004 at age 50. At the time of her death, she was detained at Runwell Hospital under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act 1983. She had suffered from mental illness intermittently for many years.
After Mrs Savage’s death, her daughter Anna made a claim on the basis that the hospital owed her, as a victim of the death, a duty under the Human Rights Act 1998. The basis of her claim was that the hospital had failed in its duty to protect her mother under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to life. She also made a claim in her own right under Article 8 (right to family life).
Mental health patients and the right to life
Before making a decision on the liability of the trust, the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) was asked to decide a preliminary issue relating to it’s responsibility under Article 2 (read decision). The Trust argued that the reasoning in Osman v United Kingdom (23452/94) (1999) 1 FLR 193 ECHR was not applicable to the care of hospital patients. In Osman, the European Court of Human Rights held that there is a positive obligation for a State to take preventive measures to protect individuals whose life is at risk.
The trust argued that applying Osman to mental health care would conflict with other obligations of medical staff to their patients and encourage them to be too restrictive of patients’ liberty for fear that they might commit suicide.
The House of Lords threw out the Trust’s appeal. They held that Article 2 put health authorities under an overarching obligation to protect the lives of their patients. If members of staff know, or are in a position to know, that a particular patient presented a real and immediate risk of suicide, there as an additional “operational” obligation to do all that could reasonably be expected to prevent such an eventuality.
End of the saga
The case has now finally concluded, with Mr Justice Mackay finding that the trust could and should have done more to protect Mrs Savage. He said “all that was required to give her a real prospect or substantial chance of survival was the imposition of a raised level of observations, which would not have been an unreasonable or unduly onerous step to require of the defendant…”
- A note by Philip Havers QC on the 2008 House of Lords judgment.
- See below (after the page break) for commentary on the House of Lords case by Rosalind English