Davies and Partners Solicitors welcome the ruling of the Supreme Court in Rabone –v- Pennine Care NHS Trust which is a significant step forward in protecting vulnerable mental health patients.
The case arose out of the death of 24 year old Melanie Rabone. At the time of her death, Melanie was suffering with a severe recurrent depressive disorder. She had made several suicide attempts in the past and had agreed to a voluntary admission to hospital to undergo psychiatric treatment. She was kept under frequent observations and noted to be a medium – high suicide risk. Although she was a voluntary patient it was felt that if she attempted to leave the ward, she was to be assessed with a view to detention under the mental health legislation.
Melanie requested a period of home leave. Her parents believed this should not be granted because of her known suicide risk. Despite this, on 19April 2005, she was granted 2 days home leave. On 20 April, Melanie hanged herself from a tree.
Her parents subsequently issued claims for negligence on behalf of her estate and a claim in their own right for breach of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 2 imposes a positive duty on States to take preventative operational measures to safeguard an individual’s life in certain circumstances. The negligence claim was settled in the sum of £7,500 plus legal costs but the Article 2 claim was pursued to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of Melanie’s parents.
The Court determined that the duty under Article 2 extended to patients detained voluntarily under mental health legislation. The Hospital’s duty was to take reasonable steps to protect against a real risk of suicide. The Supreme Court heard evidence that no reasonable psychiatrist would have allowed Melanie home leave on 20 October and in those circumstances, article 2 had been breached.
Another issue before the Court was whether the parents had lost the right to bring a claim under the Convention because of the settlement of the estate’s claim. The Supreme Court ruled they had not. Under the Convention a person ceases to be a victim of a breach if the State has provided adequate redress and acknowledged the breach either expressly or by implication. In this case, the breach had not been acknowledged and the estate’s settlement was not adequate redress as it did not include a bereavement award for the parents. The Supreme Court approved an earlier damages award of £5,000 to each parent.
This decision is significant because previous case law drew a distinction between mental health patients who were detained compulsorily and those detained voluntarily. Those who were compulsorily detained benefited from Article 2 protection whilst those who were detained voluntarily did not. The reality is, as was acknowledged by the Supreme Court, that the distinction is one of form and not substance. In this case, Melanie Rabone was detained because of her suicide risk. If she wished to leave, she could not do so if assessed to be suitable for detention.
Davies and Partners welcomes this decision which addresses the injustice caused by distinguishing detained and voluntary patients in the context of Article 2. At a time when Human Rights legislation is under fire from the Government, the case demonstrates how it can be used to protect the most vulnerable in society.