A woman with severe learning difficulties has been allowed to go home after a judge ruled that a local authority breached her human rights.
Somerset County Council v MK concerned a 19 year-old woman referred to as ‘P’, who had both autism and “severe” learning difficulties. She is unable to speak in a normal way, relying on gestures.
She had lived with her mother since her parents separated, along with her three siblings, one of whom also has learning disabilities and autism.
P attended a specialist school. One day in May last year, she appeared at school in “an extremely distressed condition, presenting the staff with very challenging behaviour”. This was thought to be related to her menstrual cycle, which had caused her distress in the past. After a class trip in which she knocked staff to the ground and had to be restrained, P was sent home from school early.
The next day her mother noticed bruising on P’s chest and spoke to her GP about this. Shortly afterwards, the mother went on holiday to Turkey and left P in respite care, alerting staff to the bruising. During P’s stay in the respite care centre, she was examined by a paediatrician, who suggested that the bruising was unlikely to have been self-inflicted.
However, the doctor was not informed that members of staff at her school had seen P hitting herself on the sternum or of the incidents during the school day trip.
As a result, however, of the paediatrician’s findings, social workers decided not to return P to the care of her mother.
Sitting in the Court of Protection, Judge Nicholas Marston declared that the reports of P’s behaviour and self-infliction of injuries “would have been easily discoverable by the social workers if they had carried out a proper investigation.”
P remained in the respite facility for six months under sedation, with a succession of short term residents, and was not allowed to return home to her family. Eventually she was transferred to an assessment and treatment centre where she remained until her case went before the Court of Protection, a branch of the High Court which makes rulings on behalf of people who lack the capacity to make their own decisions.
By that point, P had been confined to residential accommodation with only limited contact with her family for close to a year.
Following a ten day hearing, Judge Nicholas Marston issued a lengthy judgement which contained extensive criticisms of the local authority. It had, he declared, failed to carry out a “competently conducted investigation” which would have “swiftly concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to conclude P’s safety was at risk by returning her home.”
The Authority had also breached the Mental Capacity Act by not taking P’s case to the Court of Protection for six months and by not keeping her family properly informed.
Somerset County Council admitted that it had deprived P of her liberty, breaching her rights under Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This protects rights to “liberty and security”.
It apologised for “inappropriate and unlawful” actions.
P was returned to her family.
Read the full judgement here.
In April this year, the Court of Protection ruled that a man with learning difficulties should receive special coaching in appropriate behaviour when in social situations.
Photo of Somerset County Hall in Taunton by Sarah via Flickr