High Court case examines Human Rights Act claims for neglect of disabled individual

Citation: [2024] EWHC 598 (KB)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of SZR v Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council, the High Court of Justice King’s Bench Division was presented with an application for summary judgment, or alternatively, an application to strike out a claim raised under the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) on behalf of a young adult with several disabilities. The key legal issues dissected in this judgment include the thresholds for various human rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)—specifically, whether there has been a violation of Articles 3 and 8 concerning the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment and the right to respect for private and family life.

Key Facts

The Claimant, a 24-year-old woman with autism, ADHD and learning difficulties, brought proceedings against the local authority alleging serious neglect during her upbringing by her mother. The claim was predicated on three key periods from 2013 to 2017 during which the Defendant had involvement with the family but purportedly did not take adequate measures to protect the Claimant. The applications put forth by the Defendant contended the Claimant’s treatment did not meet the severity threshold of Article 3, there was no real and immediate risk known to the Defendant, and no breach of Article 8.

The judgment elucidates several legal principles:

  1. Article 3 Threshold: Severity of Treatment - Treatment must achieve a certain level of severity to be considered inhuman or degrading. Factors such as duration, physical and mental effects, and victim attributes like age or health come into play. The court considered precedents like Z v UK to assess the severity and persistent nature of neglect.

  2. Article 3 Operational Duty: Authorities are required to take measures to protect individuals if they knew or ought to have known of a real and immediate risk from third-party acts. This duty, as outlined in Rabone v Pennine Care NHS Trust and reaffirmed in AB v Worcestershire County Council, is stringent and not satisfied by mere negligence.

  3. Article 8 Respect for Private Life - Authorities must take positive steps to ensure respect for individuals’ physical and psychological integrity. The case of Bernard shows that providing suitable living conditions falls under the scope of Article 8.

  4. Procedural Principles for Summary Judgment and Strike Out: The court must avoid a ‘mini-trial’ at this stage. It should also avoid taking claimant’s assertions at face value, especially if contradicted by evidence. Cases mentioned in this context include Easyair Limited and Practice Direction 3A.

  5. Expert Evidence: Notably, in the context of Article 3, expert evidence is not essential for determining whether authorities failed to take reasonable steps to mitigate risk.

Outcomes

The court dismissed both applications by the Defendant. It was concluded that based on the information available, the Claimant’s Article 3 claim could arguably meet the severity threshold. Regarding Article 3’s operational duty, it was argued that the risk of treatment could have been real and immediate, and there were possible lapses in measures taken by the Defendant. For Article 8, the court identified a reasonable prospect the Claimant’s rights under this Article could have been breached given the sustained neglect and failure to ensure her physical and psychological integrity. Notably, the judgment separates the thresholds of Articles 3 and 8, signifying that the latter does not merely operate as a ‘lesser tier’ of the former.

Conclusion

The judgment in SZR v Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council is instrumental in demonstrating the UK courts’ approach to assessing claims under the HRA, particularly concerning Articles 3 and 8 of the ECHR. The court underscored the relative and fact-specific nature of the severity threshold under Article 3, the stringent risk criteria, and the inherent responsibilities under Article 8. This case serves as an essential reference for legal practitioners involved in safeguarding or family law matters, indicating the high bar set for intervention under Article 3 and the broader safeguards provided by Article 8.

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