Court upholds right of psychiatrist to share information with social services

The whole child protection registration system in this country
depends on active, accurate information being shared between
relevant agencies at the right time. Numerous inquiries and Part 8
reviews have reinforced this message, as well as constant
exhortations from the department of health.

Will the Human Rights Act have an effect on information being
made available through Area Child Protection Committees? It may do,
if disclosure of information is not necessary.

Take the case from Sweden of Ms Andersson, a single parent who
had a seven-year-old old son, Stive. Ms Andersson became unable to
work because of medical symptoms and anxiety. She claimed sickness
benefit and was referred to a psychiatric clinic, being treated by
the chief psychiatrist, who drew her attention to the possible
detrimental effect her situation might be having on her son. She
advised her to seek support for him from the children’s
psychiatric or social work service. This advice was rejected.

The psychiatrist informed Ms Andersson that since Stive’s
health was at risk, she was under an obligation to notify social
services. This she did, by telephoning a social worker and
informing her about Ms Andersson’s health problems, followed
up with a written referral, writing the same day to Mrs Andersson
to notify her of what she had done.

This concern was shared by Stive’s school which contacted
social services about his learning difficulties and general state
of health. Following this, an investigation commenced which
concluded when Stive was placed in a non-residential therapeutic

There is a Swedish secrecy act and it has a duty of
confidentiality within it, applying to the kind of data in this
case. It was clearly designed to protect the interest of a patient
regarding non-disclosure of medical data. Ms Andersson filed an
application with the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that
her right to respect for private and family life had been violated
and that she had no right to an effective remedy because she could
not appeal to a court against the psychiatrist’s decision to
disclose the information

Ms Andersson died before her case could be heard, but Stive
carried it on. The court found that the confidentiality rule did
not apply where a statutory obligation required the disclosure of
information to another authority. In this case the psychiatrist was
under a duty to report information she possessed for the protection
of Stive. “That duty extended to all data in her possession which
were potentially relevant to the social council’s
investigation into the need to take protective measures with
respect to the son, and depended exclusively on the relevance of
those data”, and that the psychiatrist enjoyed a very wide
discretion in assessing what data would be of importance to the
investigation. She had no duty to hear Ms Andersson’s views
before referring to social services. There was no right to prevent
communication of such information.

The court upheld the view that the convention allows states to
take a view of what is necessary in a democratic society, and in
this case a system of measures for information sharing in the
context of child protection was a reasonable measure for Sweden to
have. The same could be said for the UK.

Bernadette Livesey

Walker Morris Solicitors

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