The UK government has been told to pay a social worker €24,000 (c.£20,600) in damages for breaches of her human rights arising from “manifestly unfair” misconduct allegations from a judge in 2014 that brought her career to a halt.
In a ruling last month, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found the practitioner’s right to respect for her private life had been violated as a result of the judge’s allegations that she had lied to the family court and failed to uphold professional guidelines while investigating alleged sexual abuse.
This was because the family court judge had made the criticisms in a judgment without having given the practitioner the opportunity to answer them in the preceding hearing, and then disseminated the judgment to current and potential employers and professional bodies.
This engaged her right to respect for her private life, under Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, as this encompasses protection of reputation and the ability to pursue one’s chosen profession or business.
Unable to work
Directly on receiving the judgment, the local authority she was working for as a locum terminated her contract. She was left effectively unemployable for two years, until the Court of Appeal struck the judge’s words from the record in a 2016 judgment on the grounds that her Article 8 rights would be breached if his “manifestly unfair” criticisms were allowed to stand.
But, diagnosed with fibromyalgia caused by stress in 2015, she has been unable to work since. In 2018, a psychiatrist found that the “highly traumatic experience” of receiving the family court judge’s findings had caused post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, she was left unable to claim compensation in the domestic courts because she would have been unable to prove that the family court judge had acted in bad faith in making his criticisms. In 2017, she was granted permission to take her case to the ECtHR as the only route open for her to claim compensation.
The ECtHR found that the absence of an effective remedy to the breach of her right to private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights constituted a further violation of her rights, under Article 13 of the convention.
The social work had claimed £1,057,406 in compensation for past and future lost earnings and medical care, as well as £40,000 in non-pecuniary (non-financial) damages.
However, Yonko Grozev, president of the ECtHR, said it had to reject the social worker’s main claim for financial damages as the Court of Appeal had only criticised the process by which the original judge had reached and shared his findings; it had not considered whether the allegations were justified.
“It is not the applicant’s fault that the domestic courts did not analyse the evidence underpinning the judge’s findings; presumably, had she been able to bring a claim for compensation, the national courts would have had to examine precisely these issues,” he said.
While this meant the ECtHR could not find that there was a direct link between the violations of the social worker’s human rights caused by the judgment and her ongoing inability to work, the court said her lack of opportunity to bring a claim for substantial damages and the anxiety and distress she suffered “warrants monetary compensation”.
President Grozev said that these none of these elements “lend [themselves] to a process of calculation or precise quantification” but taking into account all the circumstances of the case and what was “fair, just and reasonable”, it would award €24,000 damages.
In addition to the damages, the social worker had claimed £38,849 for the costs of the UK court cases and £74,033 for the costs of the ECtHR case. The European court agreed with the government that this claim was “excessive” and awarded €60,000 (£51,477) in total costs.