Mencap may take legal action against NHS trusts and doctors

NHS trusts criticised in an independent inquiry for failing people with learning disabilities could face legal action, Mencap has warned.

The charity is considering judicial reviews against the trusts in Gloucestershire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and London, following an investigation by the Health Service Ombudsman and Local Government Ombudsman into six cases involving people with learning disabilities who died between 2003 and 2005.

Mencap also threatened to refer individual doctors to the General Medical Council.

Systematic change needed

David Congdon, head of campaigns and policy at Mencap, said improvements could not be carried out unless individuals and organisations were held to account for their actions.

The warning came after the health ombudsman criticised seven NHS trusts for “distressing failures” in care, which led to prolonged suffering and one, possibly two, avoidable deaths.

“Institutional discrimination”

The investigations were sparked after Mencap highlighted the cases in its report Death by Indifference, which argued that all six deaths were avoidable and linked to institutional discrimination.

This 2007 report also triggered a government-commissioned inquiry led by Sir Jonathan Michael, which identified a widespread lack of awareness in the NHS about the needs of patients with learning disabilities.

Legal duties

Congdon welcomed the ombudsman’s recommendation for all health and social care organisations in England to urgently review the quality of care for people with learning disabilities.

But he remained concerned that healthcare professionals and their employers were escaping sanction for failing to provide reasonable adjustments to people with learning disabilities, under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Congdon said judicial reviews could examine alleged breaches of the DDA and the duty to treat people with dignity and respect under the Human Rights Act 1998.

“Danger of inertia”

Phil Hope, care services minister, said the NHS was already improving the health of people with learning disabilities with annual health checks. He pointed to the range of policies to improve people’s well-being in Valuing People Now, published in January.

Congdon said that the ombudsman, the Michael inquiry, and Valuing People Now had all made proposals about improving the treatment of people with learning disabilities.”But the danger is inertia – when the spotlight is taken away from the hospital trusts they will revert to giving people a bad deal,” he added.

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