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Seal v Chief Constable of South Wales [2007]

20 July 2007
The issues

Mental Patients – Nullity – Leave of High Court – Effect of Section 139(2) Mental Health Act 1983 – Intention of Parliament – Limitation Periods – Article 6 Human Rights Act 1998 – Limitation Act 1980.

The facts

On 9 December 1997 an incident was reported to the police at the house the Claimant’ mother, the Police visited the address and arrested the Claimant for causing a breach of the peace. The Claimant was taken outside the house, and a result of what happened after this, the police removed the Claimant to a place of safety under section 136(1) of the Mental Health Act 1983.

On 8 December 2003, on the eve of expiry of the six year limitation period, The Claimant issued proceedings against the Chief Constable. The Chief Constable applied to strike out the particulars of claim and dismiss the action on the grounds that the Claimant did not seek leave from the High Court before issuing proceedings as required under section 139(2) of the Health and Safety Act 1983, the Claimant also argued that Section 139(2) of the 1983 Act was a breach of his human rights under Article 6, in that it infringed his right of access to the court. The district judge agreed with the Chief Constable, and this decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal. The decision was appealed.

The decision

The House of Lords looked at the legislative history in determining what the intention of Parliament was. The Lunacy Acts Amendment Act 1889, rendered any person in pursuance of the Act immune from civil liability in any proceedings. The Mental Treatment Act 1930 preserved the immunity of those acting pursuant to the Act apart from where they have acted in bad faith or without reasonable care. Under The Mental Health Act 1959 it remained necessary to obtain leave from the High Court before bringing Civil proceedings in respect of anything done in pursuance of the Act. The Mental Health Act (Amendment) Act 1982 made no amendment to the 1959 Act, and therefore the qualified immunity of those acting pursuant to the Act was preserved. The House of Lords came to the conclusion that there was clear judicial, professional and academic opinion that lack of the required consent rendered proceedings null, and Parliament had to be taken to have legislated on that basis.

The Claimant’s downfall was not in his failure to obtain leave, but in his failure to proceed within the limitation period allowed by the Limitation Act 1980

The House of Lords held that Section 139(2) of the 1983 Act did not breach Article 6. The European Court accepted that the right of access to the court was not absolute, and there were limitations. The protection of those responsible for the care of mental patients from being harassed by litigation is an accepted as a legitimate limitation. Restrictions on access to the courts had to be proportionate to the legitimate aim sought to be achieved.

The Appeal was dismissed, on the basis the Court of Appeal made the right decision for essentially the right reasons with Lord Woolf and Baroness Hale dissenting.

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