Detention 'breached mentally ill man's human rights', rules court


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The Independent Online

The detention of a mentally ill man in police custody for more than three days without medical care breached his human rights, a court has ruled.

Judges in Strasbourg ordered the Government to pay the man, identified only as MS, £9,050 in costs and damages for subjecting him to "inhuman or degrading treatment".

A unanimous verdict of the European Court of Human Rights said: "The Court held in particular that the applicant's prolonged detention without appropriate psychiatric treatment had diminished his human dignity, although there had been no intentional neglect on the part of the police."

The court heard that MS, a 42-year-old Briton, was arrested in Birmingham by police called to deal with him because he was sitting in a car in a "highly agitated" state, constantly sounding the horn.

He was held at a police station under the 1983 Mental Health Act, which allows someone suffering from a mental disorder to be detained for up to 72 hours for medical examination.

After the detention of MS, police found his aunt at his house, having allegedly been attacked and injured by him.

Two psychiatrists agreed MS needed mental health care in hospital for his own safety and the protection of others.

But as he was expected to face a criminal charge and be remanded in custody, a consultant forensic psychiatrist at a "medium secure" clinic decided a transfer was not immediately necessary.

Instead MS remained in police custody for more than 72 hours, locked up in a cell where, the court was told, he kept shouting, taking off all of his clothes, banging his head on the wall, drinking from the toilet and smearing himself with food and faeces.

On the second day of detention, it was decided there was not enough evidence for a criminal offence, but it was only on the fourth day of police custody that he was removed in handcuffs to a clinic for treatment.

Today's ruling said there was no doubt that MS's initial arrest was justified, as was his initial detention in a police cell.

It was undisputed that there was no intention by the police or health authorities to treat him in a manner incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, which outlaws "inhuman or degrading treatment".

There was in fact "real concern" to see him transferred to a clinic.

But the ruling said: "The fact remained that MS had been in a state of great vulnerability throughout his detention at the police station.

"As indicated by all the medical professionals who examined him, he had been in dire need of appropriate psychiatric treatment.

"That situation, which persisted until his transfer to the clinic on the fourth day of his detention, diminished excessively his fundamental human dignity."

The judges referred to a 2008 report by the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which had expressed concern that people detained by the police in the UK were not always provided with appropriate psychiatric care.

In MS's case, the maximum time limit for holding him in police custody had not been respected, the court said, adding: "The Court accepted that the situation had arisen essentially out of difficulties of co-ordination between the relevant authorities when suddenly confronted with an urgent mental health case.

"However, even though there had been no intention to humiliate MS, the Court found that the conditions he had been required to endure had reached the threshold of degrading treatment for the purposes of Article 3."