Court of Appeal condemns the treatment of an autistic boy by the police

The Court of Appeal today dismissed an appeal by the Metropolitan police against a finding that they had violated the human rights of a 16-year-old autistic boy, saying that nothing could have justified the manner in which officers restrained him at a swimming pool.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission intervened in the case involving ZH, who also has learning disabilities and epilepsy, to argue that the teenager's treatment by the police had been inhuman and degrading and was so serious that it contravened Article 3 of the European Convention. (1).

The Commission also told the court that the boy's subsequent restraint in handcuffs and leg irons before being locked up, alone, in a cage inside a police van constituted an infringement of Article 5, which protects against the deprivation of liberty(2).

The Court endorsed the Commission's position that, although the police did not intentionally breach his human rights, they had caused matters to escalate to a point where he was restrained wholly inappropriately.

ZH's ordeal happened when a group from his specialist day school had gone with care workers for a familiarisation visit to a baths in Acton, London. ZH, who cannot communicate by speech, broke away from the group and went to stand by the pool staring into the water. After 30 minutes the manager called the police.

The officers did not seek advice from ZH's carers - who knew a patient response was needed, and caused him to jump into the pool by touching him. After he was pulled out, five and then seven police officers restrained him before he was taken, still soaking wet, to the police van. The restraint and detention lasted about 40 minutes.

ZH subsequently experienced acute psychological suffering, including post traumatic stress and an exacerbation of his epilepsy.

In the hearing in the lower court the Metropolitan police officers were found to have subjected ZH to unlawful disability discrimination, assault and false imprisonment and to treatment that breached his rights protected by Articles 3, 5 and 8 (3) of the European Convention of Human Rights.  The Judge awarded damages of £28,250, including compensation for exacerbation of the boy's epilepsy and for psychiatric damage.

Wendy Hewitt, deputy director of legal at the Equality and Human Rights Commission said:

"We welcome the Court of Appeal's judgement in this case. Although the police officers were acting in what they thought to be the best interests of ZH, they made serious errors which led them to treat this vulnerable young man in a way which caused him great distress and anguish. The court supported the view that the threshold of Article 3 had been crossed on the particular facts of the case.

"The police deal with many vulnerable people and must make arrangements to ensure that they make well-informed decisions on how and when to restrain them, to avoid breaching their human rights obligations."


For further information contact the Commission’s media office on 0161 829 8102  out of hours 07767 272 818.

Notes to Editors

  • ZH (a protected party by GH, his litigation friend) and the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis, Liberty (intervener)Equality and Human Rights Commission (intervener)

(1) Article 3 is an absolute right prohibiting torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment //

(2) Article 5 concerns the right to liberty and security. It is a qualified right //

(3) Article 8 deals with the right respect for private and family life //

The Commission is a statutory body established under the Equality Act 2006, which took over the responsibilities of Commission for Racial Equality, Disability Rights Commission and Equal Opportunities Commission.  It is the independent advocate for equality and human rights in Britain.  It aims to reduce inequality, eliminate discrimination, strengthen good relations between people, and promote and protect human rights.  The Commission enforces equality legislation on age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender status, and encourages compliance with the Human Rights Act.  It also gives advice and guidance to businesses, the voluntary and public sectors, and to individuals.

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