Solicitor Anna West looks at what options vulnerable adults have when seeking redress for government services that fail to deliver – or worse…
All too often, vulnerable individuals and people with disabilities have suffered potentially avoidable harm as the result of government authorities failing in their duties. Witness some of the traumatic incidents widely publicised in the press in recent years, in which disabled people have suffered at the hands of yobs.
The tragic case of Fiona Pilkington highlights the severity of the issue. Fiona took her own life and that of her 18-year-old disabled daughter, Frankie Hardwick, in 2007 following years of abuse meted out by local youths.
During the inquest, it transpired that the family had been tormented by a gang of local youths. Frankie and her brother, Anthony, who had mild learning difficulties, were taunted about their disabilities. Reports had been made to the appropriate authorities on more than 30 occasions. The jury found that failings by the police contributed to the deaths, as did the failures of both Leicestershire County Council and Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council to share information.
What emerged from this tragic case was that the authorities were failing to identify hate crimes motivated by disabilities, instead treating such crimes as low priority anti-social behaviour.
Following this case, the extent to which disabled people can be subject to harassment, crime, assault, violence and even murder was examined in a report published in October 2010 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Hidden in plain sight – Inquiry into disability related harassment. The scale of neglect on the part of local government agents suggested by the report’s findings was shocking.
The purpose of the report was to consider the protection currently offered to vulnerable adults in England and Wales. The report noted that in cases where the authorities have, or should have, prior knowledge of ill treatment, they are obligated to take measures to protect those individuals.
Government bodies have a duty to eliminate unlawful conduct. This duty should be reflected in local government policies, and taken into account when considering the need to safeguard such individuals. Failure to comply with these duties can have devastating consequences and may give rise to claims for compensation.
Distress and anguish
In a recent case before the courts, a 16-year-old boy who was severely autistic and epileptic was entitled to recover compensation from the police. The boy had been attending the local swimming baths with his carers, had become fixated by the water and subsequently did not move for about 30 minutes. The pool manager then telephoned the police. The boy’s carer knew that he had an aversion to being touched. When the police arrived, one of the carers informed them that the boy was autistic.
An officer approached the boy and lightly touched him on the back. The boy jumped into the pool and was subsequently lifted out by the police officers, struggling. The boy was then put into restraints and placed into a police van to wait. He was eventually allowed to leave with his carers 25 minutes later. As a result of the incident, the boy suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and an exacerbation of his epilepsy.
The court found that had he not been touched, he would not have entered the pool. This was not an emergency situation, and the police had ample opportunity to discuss the matter with the boy’s carers before taking any action. Therefore, although unintentional, the police’s actions actually led them to treat a vulnerable young man in a way that caused him great distress and anguish.
It is essential that people are aware of their rights, that they report any crimes made against them – and utilise their ability to seek recourse for any official failures to safeguard them.
A survey conducted last year by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s Trailblazers group found that only four in ten disability hate crimes were reported to the police. A further 80% of young disabled people believed that the police do not take disability crimes seriously enough. This illustrates the lack of awareness surrounding the issues faced by vulnerable adults, the lack of reporting of such failings and the subsequent failures to take action.
Vulnerable adults should not have to accept such failures in the levels of protection afforded to them. They have the right to be protected, and they should be aware of their right to take action should they be put in a position where they have been subjected to such failings.
If you believe that you have suffered an injury as the result of official failings, it is important that you seek legal advice. If you wish to take action, there are strict limitation dates in place within which to bring a case. As such, it is important that you investigate your prospects of bringing a claim as soon as possible.
Anna West is a solicitor at IBB Solicitors, working as part of the firm’s Personal Injury and Clinical Negligence team. To enquire with IBB Solicitors, contact 08456 381 381 or visit www.ibblaw.co.uk for more details.