Parents who locked children in bedrooms ‘did not breach rights’


A high court judge has ruled that two sets of parents are not breaching the human rights of their disabled children by locking them in their bedrooms at night.

Both the disabled people – a nine-year-old girl and a 22-year-old woman – have Smith-Magenis syndrome, which causes self-harm, destructive behaviour and disturbed sleep.

In both cases, the parents decided they could only guarantee the safety of their daughter by locking her bedroom door every night, the court was told.

The local authority for the area where both families live had asked the court whether locking them in their rooms was an unlawful deprivation of their liberty, under article five of the European Convention on Human Rights.

But Lord Justice Munby made it clear that both sets of parents in the case had provided “devoted and exemplary care”, that there was no “deprivation of liberty” in either case, and that locking their bedroom doors at night was “quite plainly” in their best interests.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which intervened in the case as an independent expert, but did not examine the cases of the two families, told the court that any local authority that learns of a real risk of “deprivation of liberty” must investigate and appoint an advocate for the person at risk.

If the council or advocate decides there is potential “deprivation of liberty”, the council must ask the court to rule on whether it is unlawful, said the EHRC.

The EHRC told the court that such a system provides protection to a “potentially large number of vulnerable children and adults”.

Lord Justice Munby agreed with the EHRC, but made it clear that parents remain in control of how they bring up their children, despite the council’s obligations.

He said a council’s duties and powers were limited to investigating, providing support services and, if appropriate, referring the matter to court.

An EHRC spokeswoman said after the judgement was published this week that the ruling had been useful because it “clarifies the law around the local authority’s role” in such situations.

John Wadham, the EHRC’s group legal director, said the case provided a “timely reminder that only in exceptional circumstances can authorities override the decisions of loving parents”.

24 June 2010


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