As part of BIHR's 15 Days of Action to mark the 15th anniversary of the Human Rights Act (HRA), we are marking landmark moments in the Act's history. Today we are celebrating year 11 of the HRA and focusing on the important case of Neary v London Borough of Hillingdon, on the right to respect for family life for a learning disabled young man and his father.
As we travel up and down the UK for our annual Human Rights Tour, one thing people often ask us is why the British Institute of Human Rights only focus on human rights issues in the UK; how lucky we are to live in a country which respects human rights and we don't have to watch over our shoulders as we walk down the street. One of the ways we answer that question is to tell them the story of Steven Neary.
Back in 2009, when Steven was 21, he had just moved with his father, Mark, into a new flat in London. Steven has autism and a severe learning disability and Mark is his carer. When Mark fell ill with the flu Steven went for some respite care for a few days to allow Mark to recuperate. The next day Mark got a call from the social worker telling him that Steven had had a difficult night and needed to stay in the unit for longer. As Mark was still feeling ill he agreed to this for a couple of weeks, but Steven was then kept in the unit for a year against his and his father's wishes. Mark was told that Steven's behaviour was deteriorating, with no recognition that the unexpected move and prolonged stay was causing this. Without meeting Mark, a psychiatrist decided that he was not coping with Steven at home and made a 'Deprivation of Liberty Authorisation' to keep Steven at the unit. Mark was then told that Steven wouldn't be returned home and they were looking for a long-term placement for him in Wales.
I interviewed Mark earlier this year for a new BIHR publication which is due out later this year. Although I was familiar with Steven's story, having used it so many times in BIHR's outreach and training events, hearing it first hand was incredibly moving. Mark told me that it hadn't occurred to him to use human rights to challenge the decisions of the local authority. But when Steven escaped from the unit for the third time he was appointed an Independent Mental Capacity Advocate. She was "fantastic" and helped Mark to get a lawyer and they started a legal challenge. Steven's interests were represented by the Official Solicitor and she was the first person to raise the fact that Steven and Mark's right to respect for family life had been interfered with by these decisions. "This was the turning point and was the essence of the whole case; what was Steven doing there when he should be at home with me? It was so basic."
The court decided that Steven's right to liberty (protected by Article 5 of the Human Rights Act) had been breached and that Mark and Steven's right to respect for family life (protected by Article 8) had also been breached. As a result Steven was returned home, but Mark told me Steven remains very traumatised by how he was treated that year. "Even now, whenever I seem to be getting ill he gets very worried that he will be taken away. He may never get over that."
"Article 8 of the Human Rights Act saved Steven's life. If we hadn't used the Act to challenge the decisions about his care, Steven would have faced a life in public care he didn't want or need and he would now be living in Wales with only Skype contact with me. It's a horrendous thought." Mark Neary
Steven's story is sad example of how important rights are in the UK. Whilst we are lucky not to have to look over our shoulders as we walk down the street, Steven never thought he would be removed from his home and forced to live in care miles away from his father. It was the Human Rights Act that made the difference in his case. At our Human Rights Tour event in Arbroath last week one delegate liken the Human Rights Act to a burglar alarm; we hope that we never need to rely on it, but just having it there is reassuring.