Council liable for failure to protect children

Z and her three siblings were born in 1982, 1984, 1986 and 1988,
and the family was first referred to social services in 1987.
Thereafter there were persistent reports of gross neglect with
varying levels of response by social services, health services and
education, all of whom were aware of problems.

At one point Bedfordshire social services was told that the
children were frequently locked outside in a filthy back garden,
that they constantly screamed and that they were kept for long
periods in their bedrooms where they smeared faeces on their
windows. The maternal grandparents later said that Z was treated by
her mother as a servan,t and expected to clean excrement from the

Eventually in October 1992 the authority took care proceedings.
A child psychiatrist instructed for the proceedings describing it
as the worst case of neglect and emotional abuse that she had seen
in her professional career. In her opinion, social services had
“leaned over backwards to avoid putting these children on the child
protection register and had delayed too long, leaving at least
three of the children with serious psychological disturbance as a

Subsequently the children sued the local authority, but were
unsuccessful. The House of Lords held that there was no claim for
negligence or breach of statutory duty. In effect they said that it
was not in the public interest for damages to be paid to children
who had suffered as a result of a local authority failure to take
action to protect them.

The official solicitor then took the case on to the European
Court of Human Rights, which issued its judgement on 10 May 2001 in
Z v The United Kingdom. It held that the applicants’ claims were
properly and fairly examined in light of the domestic legal
principles. Accordingly there was no breach of the article 6 right
to a fair trial.

The court held, however, that there was a breach of article 3 in
that the local authority had failed to protect the applicants from
inhuman and degrading treatment. The English court procedures
prevented them from obtaining compensation for the damage suffered,
so that there was also a violation of article 13. The European
court awarded substantial damages. Future decisions on similar
facts in the United Kingdom will have to take account of the
European decision.

Richard White

White and Sherwin Solicitors

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.