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MS v UK, European Court of Human Rights, 3 May 2012

7 June 2012
The issues

Police custody – length of detention of a person with psychiatric illness – violation of Art 3 degrading treatment – Mental Health Act 1983

The facts

On 6 December 2004 the police were called to attend to the applicant who was sitting in a car sounding its horn repeatedly and in a highly agitated manner. At 4.20am he was arrested and taken into custody where it was noted that he was clearly suffering from some form of mental illness and that a doctor would be required. His detention was authorised under s.136 of the Mental Health Act 1983. The police attended the applicant’s address where they found his aunt with serious and extensive injuries to her face and upper body which had been inflicted by the applicant. At 5.00am the applicant was examined in his cell by the forensic medical examiner, he found that the applicant was not fit for interview or to be charged with any criminal offence. A formal assessment under the Mental Health Act was done at approximately 7am. It was held that the applicant warranted detention in hospital in the interest of his health and safety and for the protections of other persons. This view was supported by another psychiatric specialist at about 11am. For the remainder of his time at the police station, the applicant remained under continuous observation.

During that day numerous attempts were made to find the applicant an appropriate hospital for his detention this was not possible in particular in relation to the recommended Reaside Clinic. The applicant’s behaviour throughout the day was noted as being disturbed and included, clapping, banging on the door, lowering his trousers and waving his testicles about, licking the wall of his cell and repeatedly hitting his head against the wall.

The next day, 7 December, there were further telephone communications between the police station and Reaside regarding the applicant’s admission. The police contacted other mental health officials but the admission to Reaside remained the only viable option. By the end of the second day in custody it was noted that the applicant’s behaviour had started to deteriorate including removing all his clothes, drinking water out of the cell toilet, and after 4.17pm refusing all further offers of food and drink for the remainder of the day.

The applicant could not be transferred until the following morning at 8am which exceeded the 72 hour time limit

On the third day of detention, 8 December, the duty inspector noted his concern at the environment in which the applicant was detained. The applicant was still naked and was observed to be rocking to and fro on the bench, talking to himself, banging his chest and ranting. At about 11am the applicant was assessed by professionals from Reaside where it was concluded that the applicant needed inpatient treatment in a medium-secure setting with adequate nursing resources and a clear and effective care plan, however it was stated that a place would not be available for the applicant until the following morning. This would be beyond the 72 hour limit laid down under the Mental Health Act 1983.

The applicant could not be transferred until the following morning at 8am which exceeded the 72 hour time limit. On 9 December the applicant was released from police custody and escorted, in handcuffs to Reaside. Once he was admitted it took 8 nursing staff to restrain him.

The decision

The ECHR found the applicant’s initial arrest and detention were justified on the basis of the violent physical assault perpetrated by the applicant on his aunt. They also accepted that the police and health authorities had no intention to treat the applicant in a manner incompatible with Article 3. The court rejected the applicant’s submission that the medical personnel at the clinic were cavalier to the applicant’s case and that the conditions of the detention were unsuitable.

However, the court held that due to the applicant’s state of great vulnerability manifested by the abject condition to which he quickly deteriorated, he was in urgent need of appropriate psychiatric treatment and the time it took for the applicant to receive such treatment (fourth day of detention) diminished excessively his fundamental human dignity and therefore found a breach of Article 3.

The court held there was no violation of Article 13 or 14.

The ECHR accepted the efforts made on the applicant’s behalf were genuine and that those who came in to contact with him were sensitive to his distress but highlighted the situation arose out of difficulties of co-ordination between the relevant authorities when suddenly confronted with an urgent mental health case.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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