In May 2008, Hounslow council was ordered to pay £100,000 compensation to a couple who both have a learning disability and were subjected to abuse by their neighbours. The landmark ruling is the first to hold a local authority responsible for protecting vulnerable adults from ‘third parties’.
Here, Frances Swaine, partner at Leigh Day and Co and the solicitor acting for the couple, explains the ruling’s wider implications.
In the case of 52-year-old X and his 46-year-old wife Y versus Hounslow council an important point of principle has been established by Justice Maddison in his judgement.
The case concerned a very vulnerable family who had been known to various departments of the local authority for a long time. Both adults had a learning disability and one of their two school-age children also had special needs.
Both adults and both children had (or ought to have had) allocated care workers, they were living in social housing, and one child attended a local special needs unit. The local authority was aware that they were at risk of being exploited and abused.
Problems developed over several years, during which the local authority was aware of X and Y’s problems with local youths. They had asked to be rehoused but nothing was done.
The youths appeared to befriend the family, only to become unwelcome guests in their home. Distressingly, in 2000 the matter culminated in a weekend-long sexual and physical assault on the whole family, resulting in physical and psychological damage. The teenagers assaulted X, forced him to eat faeces and cut him 40 times. Y, whose children witnessed much of the abuse, was also assaulted.
Although this judgement is ‘issue specific’, dealing with this particular attack and this particular council, it does open a ‘chink’ in the armour of local authorities; this is the first judgement where a local authority has been found to be in breach of its duty of care towards vulnerable adults for the actions of third parties (the youths that attacked them).
Neither of them had the mental capacity to act in the legal case on their own behalf
European Court law has established that local authorities do not owe a duty of care towards adults and Hounslow council used this as part of its defence. X and Y were different in that they both have a learning disability and both live in the community. Neither of them had the mental capacity to act in the legal case on their own behalf and the Official Solicitor took on the role. The Official Solicitor of the Supreme Court acts as ‘litigation friend’ for people who lack capacity, where there is no one else suitable or willing to do so, and appointed me to act for them. I met both adults several times and spoke with them on many occasions, keeping them informed of progress.
There were several interesting conclusions in the judgement. It was decided that the various departments in the local authority (housing and social services for example) should be considered as a single legal entity. X and Y’s circumstances meant that the judge regarded it “fair, just and reasonable to impose upon the defendant (Hounslow) a narrowly-defined duty to move the claimants out of a flat in response to the unusual but dangerous situation”.
Of course not every potential complainant will fit this picture. But the onus is now on local authorities to assess those adults with a learning disability living in the community very carefully, to ensure that they are fully supported, and not to ignore any early warning signs of abuse. If they do not, they could be found liable if abuse does take place and could have been prevented.
This article appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Viewpoint