Damages for women 'held in slavery'

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The Independent Online

Four Nigerian women "held in slavery" after being illegally trafficked into the UK were awarded a total of £20,000 damages today by a High Court judge who concluded that police had breached their human rights by failing to investigate complaints.

Mr Justice Wyn Williams awarded each woman £5,000 after ruling that Metropolitan Police detectives' "failure to carry out an effective investigation" amounted to a breach of European human rights legislation.

The women, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, had alleged that they were brought from Nigeria to the UK illegally, made to work for no pay in households in and around London for a number of years and subjected to "emotional and physical abuse" by householders.

They complained that the Metropolitan Police had infringed their rights under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms by failing to investigate over a "significant" period of time.

Police had denied, during a hearing at the High Court in London in March, that any officer had breached the women's human rights "as a consequence of a failure to investigate" their complaints.

"(The women) allege that their treatment over (the) years was such that they were subject to inhuman and degrading treatment and that they were held in slavery or servitude contrary to (European law)," said Mr Justice Wyn Williams, in a written judgment published today.

"Police were asked to investigate the treatment which had been meted out to them The (women's) case is that over a significant period of time a number of officers of the Metropolitan Police failed to undertake any such investigation."

He said there had been a "failure to investigate", the women had been "directly affected" by that failure and each needed damages to "afford just satisfaction".

"Each of the (women) is entitled to a declaration to the effect that their human rights were breached," added the judge. "I have reached the conclusion that the appropriate award of damages for each claimant is £5,000."

Lawyers for the women had argued that a "continuing failure" to investigate "their forced labour, servitude and abuse" in the London area between 1997 and 2006 amounted to a breach of human rights.

Phillippa Kaufmann, for the women, had told Mr Justice Wyn Williams that the women were trafficked into the UK when they were minors.

"They want an acknowledgement of how all of them have been treated and they want just satisfaction in the form of compensation," she told the court.

"Above all, they want lessons to be learned, so that others that find themselves in the same predicament can be rescued from circumstances such as those they finally managed to escape from."

Ms Kaufmann said the case represented the first opportunity for the domestic courts fully to address the nature and scope of the investigative duty imposed by rights legislation.

She argued that it involved the taking of positive and reasonably practicable steps to secure evidence with a view to stamping out "serious and heinous conduct which goes to the heart of human dignity".

Ms Kaufmann said the women triggered the duty to investigate by bringing their allegations to the attention of the police on a number of occasions.

"On all those occasions they were willing and prepared to have their allegations of abuse investigated," said told the court.

"The problem is that ... officers on the ground were repeatedly and, in every imaginable context, reluctant to discharge that duty and, whenever it was triggered, they repeatedly failed to take any steps to investigate the serious offences which were staring them in the face."

Ms Kaufmann said officers and their bosses did not understand the very serious nature of the crimes or the extreme vulnerability of the victims and became "hamstrung by formalities".

There was a "worrying lack of concern" for the victims and the Metropolitan Police force was trying to minimise the full extent of its legal responsibility, she added.

She told the court that the police had made huge strides in the last 10 years to support the victims of sexual abuse and it should not take another decade to do the same in relation to victims of trafficking.

The court heard the women, now in their 20s, were brought to the UK when they were aged between 11 and 15.

A spokesman for the women's solicitors, Bhatt Murphy, said after today's ruling: "The Metropolitan Police Service has not apologised to any of the victims for failing to investigate their abusers in 2007.

"Instead it argued unsuccessfully in court that it did not owe a legal duty to investigate credible allegations of servitude unless those allegations were reported whilst the servitude was ongoing.

"(Police) lawyers also tried to blame the victims in court for the lack of an investigation by suggesting that they had failed to cooperate with the police. This suggestion was roundly rejected by Mr Justice Wyn Williams."

Solicitor Tony Murphy added: "The (police) commissioner should not require a court judgment to appreciate the importance of investigating child slavery. His decision to fight this case sends a dangerous message to officers that combating human trafficking is not a priority for the Met."