Locking autistic man in padded room ruled illegal

The Court of Protection has ruled that an 18-year-old man with autism and severe learning disabilities who was regularly placed in a padded seclusion room more than six times a day was unlawfully deprived of his liberty.

The man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was taken as a 16-year-old to a residential school for children with complex needs. The teenager went with his mother's permission but a dispute broke out in 2010 between care workers and the boy's family after specialists began regularly relying on a special cell known as "the blue room" to control his behaviour.

The court heard how the boy, who is referred to in proceedingd as "C", was placed in the padded room 192 times in a single month, the equivalent of 6.4 times a day.In a ruling in the Court of Protection at the High Court, Mr Justice Ryder described the case as "complex" and "tragic" but ruled that the use of the room was a deprivation of C's liberty and was unlawful because the special needs school had not sought a deprivation of liberty order through the court.

"Between his 16th birthday on 29 July 2008…and his 18th birthday... there was no authority by court order or statutory power for C to be deprived of his liberty either generally or in the blue room," the judge ruled.

The ruling is the second time in as many weeks that the Court of Protection has found that a local authority wrongly deprived someone of their liberty. Last week the London Borough of Hillingdon was severely criticised by a judge for taking Steven Neary, a 21-year-old man with autism and severe learning disabilities, away from his father for more than a year.

Unlike the Neary case, in which all parties had already been publicly named before proceedings began and could therefore be named in the press, the local authority, primary care trust and school involved in C's care cannot be named to protect his identity.The details of the case were made public for the first time yesterday. C was described as a boy who has "aggressive and destructive traits" which put him at risk to both himself and his carers.

He suffers from a sensory impairment and often chooses to walk around naked because touch is a vital way for him to communicate. He often harms himself and has harmed his carers including one member of staff who suffered a detached retina.

Throughout 2010 C's behaviour deteriorated considerably and care workers came to rely on the blue room more and more often to control his actions.

The room itself was described as a "specially constructed blue room which is padded and which is approximately 10 feet square with a secure door and window, through which the whole of the room cannot be seen when the door is closed."

C's mother became increasingly worried about the use of the blue room and testified how her son had become "a tall emaciated young man, covered in bruises and scabs with protruded elbows and joints, malformed feet and cuts over his eyes. I hear him wailing, crying, shouting."

The head teacher countered that C's behaviour was "some of the most severe I have seen" and the school gave evidence showing that as many as 2090 instances of challenging behaviour were logged in June 2010 alone - the equivalent of 70 a day.

Mr Justice Ryder said the head teacher was "undoubtedly a dedicated man" but added that "in the judgement of this court [he] has lost sight of the essential human problems that need to be solved in the morass of structural and guidance issues which also arise."

The judge ruled that C's article 5 right to liberty and security under the European Convetion on Human Rights had been breached. A further hearing to discuss damages and whether further rights were breached will take place at a later date.

On a final note the judge added: "It would not be right to leave this tragic case without noting that there are many very dedicated people, professionals and trained carers alike who are involved in the care of those with complex needs like C; they deserve the court's and society's sincere thanks."

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