Human rights law and duty of care places legal obligations on councils to protect vulnerable people from abuse
A victim of disability hate crime does not have to suffer in silence. Statutory agencies and workers have more than just professional or moral obligations to protect vulnerable adults from abuse. They have legal obligations too.
All those working with vulnerable adults can, in a general sense, be assumed to care about them, but this is not the same as owing a legal “duty of care” to keep them from harm. The relevance of such a duty is that, if it is breached through negligent conduct, damages are payable.
In a decision in April (X and Y v Hounslow LBC), the Court of Appeal rejected a claim that a council owed a duty of care to protect two vulnerable adults from abuse. However, it should be noted that the decision does not rule out the possibility of a “duty of care” arising in other cases.
X and Y had “borderline mild range” learning disabilities and suffered exploitation and abuse from local youths. Ultimately, X and Y were held in their flat for a weekend and subjected to sadistic assaults.
X and Y claimed that their council, Hounslow, owed them a duty of care to protect them from the youths. They argued that the duty was breached because Hounslow had not re-housed them before that weekend. The claim was rejected by the Court of Appeal because Hounslow had not assumed “specific responsibility” for X and Y’s safety.
Hounslow was trying to find alternative accommodation for X and Y but was hampered by housing shortages and the pair’s reluctance to make formal complaints about the youths. In so acting, Hounslow was simply trying to discharge its statutory functions rather than assume specific responsibility for X and Y’s safety.
This leaves open the possibility that in other cases the element of “specific responsibility” will be present. This would be more likely to arise in the case of adults with severe learning disabilities who are particularly vulnerable.
The European Convention on Human Rights (as given effect in the UK by the Human Rights Act 1998) is also highly relevant for those working with vulnerable adults. It can require public bodies to step in to protect vulnerable adults.
Article 3 of the convention prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment. The European Court of Human Rights has held that it requires state authorities to take reasonable steps to prevent ill-treatment of which the authorities are aware (Z v UK).
There is also Article 8 of the Convention which provides that everyone has the right to respect for their private life and home.
It is a useful tool for persuading public bodies to tackle lower-level antisocial behaviour and harassment. It can require that they take steps to prevent one individual harassing another.
In Surugiu v Romania, for example, a man was harassed by his neighbours for five years, which included threats and the repeated dumping of manure in his yard.
The court found a violation of Mr Surugiu’s Article 8 rights because “the authorities had not taken the steps that could normally be expected of them to put a stop to the interference by third parties, over several years, with the applicant’s right to respect for his home”.
Ed Mitchell is a solicitor and editor of Social Care Law Today
This article is published in the 22 October issue of Community Care magazine under the heading When statutory agencies must address disability hate crime