The first court case that brought Allan Levy, who has died at the
age of 62, to public prominence was one that he lost. In 1987, he
acted for the official solicitor in representing a 17-year-old
young woman with Down’s syndrome. The judges ruled that doctors
could sterilise her and the House of Lords later confirmed the
decision. But great controversy surrounded both hearings and one
outcome was that Allan was used increasingly by the official
solicitor on future cases where medical ethics and the law came to
the testing point.
From then on his interest in ethics and the law combined with other
matters affecting human rights, notably those of children. But it
was not until he co-chaired the Pindown inquiry in 1990 (into the
solitary confinement of looked-after children in Staffordshire)
with child care pioneer Barbara Kahan that he became prominently
associated with the wider world of child care. He became a frequent
speaker at social work conferences, he wrote for magazines and
newspapers, and was always ready to offer comments on television
He told me that before his appointment to the Pindown inquiry he
did not know Barbara and chose her from a list of names he was
given. He was surprised to be joined by a 70-year-old, but
discovered that her energies belied her years and it became a
fruitful partnership. Barbara was not a woman easily impressed, but
she was by Allan.
His forensic legal skills, and her profound knowledge of child care
and residential care, led to a massive condemnation of
Staffordshire Council and those who perpetrated the abusive pindown
techniques. “Unethical, unprofessional, unacceptable” was how the
report in 1991 described the practice, adding that the regime had
been “a fundamental abuse of human rights”.
Perhaps remarkably it was the first major inquiry into residential
care. It showed how abuse could flourish within an authority that
was inward-looking and parochial. One individual gain was that the
victims received large sums in compensation. A wider result was
that, indirectly, the report led to Quality Protects, which
affected all children’s social services.
A happy personal consequence of the inquiry was that Barbara and
Allan remained friends until she died in 2000, and he then became
chair of the Vladimir and Barbara Kahan Trust, the charity she set
up for research into helping children with special needs or who had
been harmed. A professional consequence for him was that his
commitment and powers of advocacy gained him status and respect
within social work, something unusual for a profession that is so
often hostile to, and suspicious of, lawyers.
Allan had a traditionally radical view of the law: it was there to
protect those who needed protection, and, in his view, few needed
that more than children. Many of the cases he fought involved a
condemnation of the failure of local authorities to abide by their
duties to those in their care. Surrogacy, child abduction and
inter-country adoption were among his briefs. Some of his cases
have affected the law of the land: the adult man who sought the
revocation of his adoption order, the attempt to have a foetus made
a ward of court, the sedated Jehovah’s Witness on a life-support
machine who had refused blood transfusions.
Allan’s work established the right to compensation for those who
have suffered psychological damage through abuse when local
authorities were negligent, as well as the same right for those who
have been left unnecessarily in care. But he was one of the very
few prominent people to suggest that the government’s push for more
adoptions could lead to inappropriate placements.
He was an early advocate of a children’s commissioner when
political parties were indifferent. In 1998, he secured a ruling
from the European Court that the UK law permitting “reasonable
chastisement” was in breach of the European Convention on Human
Rights. It was entirely appropriate that one of his last public
statements was to support the abolition of corporal punishment
under the Children Bill.
His professional interests reflected the offices he accepted:
honorary legal adviser to the National Children’s Bureau, member of
inquiries by the Howard League into violence in penal institutions
for young people and the Gulbenkian Foundation into children and
violence. He was a supporter of YoungMinds and last year served as
a judge in its first annual book awards.
Allan Levy proved the value of the law in securing rights. But he
also showed that the law can be a means of improving professional