Liberty argues vulnerable psychiatric patients deserve same protections as prisoners

24 October 2008

Liberty is intervening in an appeal to the Law Lords by Anna Savage, whose mother committed suicide after escaping from Runwell Hospital where she had been detained under the Mental Health Act. In the two-day hearing which starts on Monday 27 October, Liberty will argue that those detained under the Mental Health Act are as vulnerable as prisoners and the State should protect them accordingly and account for injuries suffered by them.

Liberty’s Legal Officer Anna Fairclough, intervening in the case said:

‘There is no justification for a greater level of protection for prisoners than the mentally ill. Whether the state locks people up in prison or in hospital, it must take responsibility for avoidable deaths’

In the intervention brought by Liberty, Justice, Mind and Inquest it is argued that a person detained under the Mental Health Act will often be more vulnerable than a prisoner because of the sweeping powers under the Mental Health Act, and therefore the State’s obligation to them should be applied with even greater force.

The European Court of Human Rights has determined that persons held in custody are in a vulnerable position and that the authorities are under a duty to protect them. Accordingly, the State must account for any injuries suffered in custody. If it is established that the authorities knew or should have known of a real and immediate risk to the life of an individual and failed to take measures to avert that risk then they will be in breach of the positive obligation under Article 2 (the right to life).

Mairi Clare Rodgers on 0207 378 3677 or 0797 3 831 128

Notes to Editors

1. The Law Lords will hear South Essex Partnership NHS Trust and Anna Savage and Inquest, Justice, Liberty and Mind on the 27 and 28 October. The judgment will be reserved.

2. On 5 July 2004 Carol Savage committed suicide after absconding from the Runwell Hospital where she had been detained under section 3 of the Mental Health Act. She was 49 years of age. She had a long history of mental illness and was detained for treatment for paranoid schizophrenia on an open acute psychiatric ward. During her time in the hospital she made a number of attempts to leave. She succeeded in leaving the hospital and walked two miles to the railway station at Wickford, where she jumped in front of a train and was killed.

3. The test for prisoners who commit suicide is the Osman test i.e. whether the state knew or ought to have known of a real and immediate risk to life and if there were steps reasonably open to it which might have averted the risk. The ECHR has not applied this test to those who die preventable deaths in ordinary hospitals and simple negligence on the part of health professionals will not normally engage the responsibility of the state. Normally the state’s responsibility in the field of health care is limited to cases of gross negligence and to ensuring a safe system, for example that doctors are registered and trained. The ECHR has, however, applied the Osman test to a prisoner being treated in an ordinary hospital.

4. Between 1997 and 2005 there were 1731 self-inflicted deaths among in-patients in psychiatric hospitals. Among patients detained under the Mental Health Act during 2005-2007, there were 120 self-inflicted deaths. The suicide rate for detained psychiatric patients is more than double that of the prison population.