Patience is a virtue (except for the Police!): ZH v. Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis [2012] EWHC 604 (Admin)

Case Transcript: http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/media/judgments/2012/zh-v-police-judgment

The case concerned the appropriateness of the police response to an incident at Acton swimming baths on 23rd September 2008. The claimant was a 16yr old pupil with Autism, epilepsy and various learning disabilities who could not communicate by speech and had a severe aversion to being touched.

On the day in question, ZH was attending the swimming baths for a ‘familiarisation’ visit with his carer (Mr Sateesh Badugu), two other school staff and a number of pupils from the school. Although it was not intended that he would swim or be close to the water, ZH broke away from the school group and stood fixated by the edge of the pool. Unable to persuade ZH to return with the group, the group returned to the school to get additional assistance, leaving Mr Badugu in charge of the claimant. The school now accepts that good practice would have been to have had closed sessions without the public present [146], but no criticism was made of the initial visit, nor of Mr Badugu’s actions in dealing with ZH.

The situation became exacerbated when the Pool manager (Christian Harland), having been notified of the situation by the duty lifeguard (Yvette Burton), became frustrated by what he saw as the “ineffectiveness of the carer” [9] trying to entice ZH away from the pool with crisps. In a panic and in an attempt to break the deadlock, Mr Harland rang the police stating:

“We have a disabled male trying to get into the pool….the carer is trying to stop him and he is getting aggressive…he is quite a big lad” [10]

The initial police response to this incident was in the form of two officers in full uniform (PC Hayley Mckelvie & PC Emma Colley). Following the misleading 999 call, both officers perceived an immediate threat to life, despite ZH having been standing calmly by the shallow end of the pool for at least 40mins with several lifeguards nearby [70].

PC McKelvie went to speak to ZH, without speaking to Mr Badugu first, and touched ZH gently on his back. The Court held that this was the catalyst for ZH to jump in the shallow end of the pool [79]. The police officers justified their actions on the basis that:

“no-one was taking control and the police had to do so, and be seen to be doing so” [15, 76 & 77]

While ZH could not swim, the presence of the lifeguards and the fact that they formed a cordon to prevent him from getting to the deep end meant he was in no imminent danger. During this time, more carers and school staff arrived, however despite ZH being in the water for between 5-10mins, the police did not consult the carers for advice, or for help in formulating a plan, and none was offered to the police [21].

Three further police officers (PC Susan Tither, PC Varinder Sooch & PC Stuart Hunter) arrived at the pool and they then proceeded to forcibly remove ZH from the water. As he was lifted out of the water, he was immediately placed forcibly on his back and all five officers applied force to his body to restrain him [25]. Despite the carers repeatedly asking the police not to restrain him in this way as he was autistic and epileptic [26], two police officers shouted loud clear commands to ZH, while leg restraints and two pairs of handcuffs were applied, during which process, ZH lost control of his bowels.

ZH was then carried from the building and placed alone in a cage in the rear of the police van, still in handcuffs and leg restraints and soaking wet. His carer was not allowed to go into the cage with him, but was able to calm him enough to persuade the police to remove the restraints.

The claimant successfully brought three main actions against the police: trespass to the person (assault, battery & false imprisonment), and claims under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Human Rights Act 1998.

 

Assault, Battery & False Imprisonment

Although the claimant alleged the unlawful application of force in touching or restraining, the Police argued that their actions were justified under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. While the defendant did not have to have the exact provisions of the Act in mind while they were applying the force they did have to demonstrate that:

  • The claimant lacked capacity  (YES)
  • Any act was in his best interests (NO)
  • There was an imminent danger of severe injury (NO)
  • This belief was genuine (YES)
  • It was a proportionate response to the likelihood and severity of any harm (NO)
  • The response was the least restrictive way of dealing with the incident (NO)
  • The views of the carers were be considered (NO)

The Court held that as there was no emergency at any stage of the incident, the police were not acting in ZH’s best interests. The failure to consult with the carers before approaching ZH, removing him from the pool or restraining him on poolside was also unreasonable [125], unnecessary, and disproportionate [127]. ZH could also have been placed in a warm room within the building rather than the police van. While the Police tried to argue their actions were necessary, this was rejected by the Court as it would circumvent the provisions of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 [44].

 

Disability Discrimination Act 1995, s.21b

The claim under the Act was essentially that it was unlawful for a public authority to discriminate against a disabled person in carrying out its functions, or in failing to make any adaptations where necessary. In particular the Court held that 8 adaptations could have been made:

  • Identify with carers the best way of communicating
  • Take reasonable steps to address the situation
  • Allow the claimant opportunities to communicate with his carers
  • Allow the claimant an opportunity to move at his own pace
  • Application of force was a last resort and should be at the minimum level necessary
  • Responding to advice from carers as the situation developed
  • Adopt alternative strategies to afford protection for C’s safety
  • Prioritising adoption of calm, controlled and patient approach with the claimant

This duty on the Police to make reasonable adjustments and to inform themselves of the situation was a continuing and non-delegable duty throughout the incident. Indeed, even if the school or its carers had been in breach of a duty to inform the police of ZH’s condition [121], this did not excuse the police from liability under the Act [137].

 

Human Rights Act 1998 claim

The claimant was successful in claiming under three headings:

  • Art 3 (inhuman / degrading treatment) – taking into account the whole period of restraint
  • Art 5 (right to liberty) – while the use of restraint can be justified, on this occasion, “its use for a significant period of time on an autistic epileptic young man…was in the circumstances hasty, ill-informed and damaging” [145]
  • Art 8 (right to respect for private life) – the police action was not justified as proportionate in the circumstances.

  

Implications

The Court was at pains to note that the Police did not act in any ill-intentioned way towards the claimant, indeed one might argue that the police were placed in a difficult and volatile situation by a misleading call. It is also true that while the claimant was not in imminent danger, he was in a dangerous situation that had the potential to escalate rapidly. Ultimately however, liability arose because the police jumped in at the deep end by failing to consult with the respective carers or use softer, more persuasive methods of control.

The case raises interesting points in relation to the tension between paternalism (in ZH’s best interests even though it might be distressing to be restrained) and libertarianism (ZH should be allowed to do whatever he wants). As with anything, the context is all-important. If the police had been called when ZH had only just moved and become fixated by the water, or if it had been near the deep-end, or in a busier pool where there was more potential for accidental bumping / injury to the public, then the police response may have been more easily justified.

Ironically, the key failing of the police was not in immediately taking control of the situation, but rather in becoming fixated with an aggressive solution to a perceived problem, and demonstrating an inability to communicate with people around them. If officers had deferred to, consulted or sought advice from the carers (even if it was later disregarded as inappropriate), many of the problems could have been avoided. On the other hand, would the police have been criticised for delegating too much of their authorit? The incident also raises the tricky question of how they should evaluate the competency of any ‘expert advice’ they receive during an incident?

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About Kris

Associate Professor in Sports Law, Staffordshire University; British Gymnastics Senior Coach

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