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Substantial damages paid to an adult learning disabled couple injured whilst in the care of the local authority

For the first time it has been decided that local authorities can owe a duty of care to vulnerable adults as well as to children. Frances Swaine, partner and head of the human rights department at Leigh Day, explains.

Photo: istock

30 May 2008

The human rights team at Leigh Day, led by partner Frances Swaine, has welcomed the judgment of Mr Justice Maddison on 23rd May 2008. The case involves two clients of Leigh Day. Instructed by the Official Solicitor1 Frances Swaine handled their claim which was against the couple's local authority (both the social services and housing department) who were accused of negligence.

The brief facts of the cases are that X and Y, both of whom have learning disabilities, were living in unsuitable council housing with their two young children, one of whom also has learning disabilities. They had been assessed over a lengthy period by various experts as being socially extremely vulnerable and at risk of being exploited and abused. A lengthy period of harassment from local youths culminated in a weekend of sexual abuse, assault and imprisonment in their own home. Various individuals in the council’s social services and housing department were aware that a campaign of harassment and abuse was taking place against X and Y but had not managed to move them. Following their ordeal X and Y continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is already known that local authorities have a duty of care to protect vulnerable children in their care. This is the first judgment that has agreed that councils should also have a duty of care to adults who have a proven learning disability. The judge said ‘a duty of care exists only if I am satisfied that the injury and loss suffered by the claimants was reasonably foreseeable; that their relationship with the defendant was sufficiently proximate to warrant the imposition of the duty of care; and that it would be just, fair and reasonable to impose such a duty.’

The judge came to a number of interesting conclusions. He decided that the various departments in the council (such as housing and social services) should be considered as a single legal entity. He ruled that it was ‘reasonably, indeed clearly foreseeable that either or both of the claimants would suffer a serious physical attack from local youths in their flat.’ He also concluded that there was ‘a close relationship between the parties to this litigation.’

The particular set of circumstances pertinent to X and Y meant that the judge did ‘regard it as fair, just and reasonable to impose upon the defendant (the council) a narrowly-defined duty to move the claimants out of the flat in response to the unusual but dangerous situation which had developed.’ Having established that the council did owe X and Y a duty of care, the judge then went on to find that the council was in breach of that duty, having to failed to move them out of their accommodation.

X and Y also claimed damages under s.6 and s.7 of the Human Rights Act 1998, the right to protection from inhuman and degrading treatment and the right to respect for family life, although the damages of £100,000 that the council was ordered to pay to X and Y was for its negligence, rather than for the claim under the Human Rights Act.

For more information please contact Frances Swaine on 020 7650 1200.

1.  The Official Solicitor to the Supreme Court acts as litigation friend for persons who lack litigation capacity in cases where there is no one else suitable and willing to do so.

Information was correct at time of publishing. See terms and conditions for further details.

Information was correct at time of publishing. See terms and conditions for further details.

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