Human Rights Accountability - When a Swimming Pool Visit Ends in a Police Van

Human Rights Accountability - When a Swimming Pool Visit Ends in a Police Van

On 2 October 2000 our Human Rights Act became law, protecting universal human rights across the UK. Fifteen years on, this October BIHR has organised 15 days of action, including our Human Rights Tour with events across the UK to celebrate the difference our Human Rights Act has made to our democracy and people's lives across the UK. Each day we will be looking at one story from each of the years the Human Rights Act has been in force, today is the turn of 2013 and the case of ZH v The Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis.

ZH, as he was known during the case, has autism and epilepsy. When he was 16 he visited the swimming pool with his school. He wasn't planning on swimming; it was a school trip to get himself and his class more familiar with the pool and surroundings. As the group were leaving, ZH broke away and walked to the swimming pool edge. ZH was increasingly mesmerised by the water and the pool manager became agitated, concerned that ZH may jump in. Carers explained that they could de-escalate the situation over time and not to approach ZH because he had an aversion to being touched in an unfamiliar way and this could provoke him into jumping.

However, the pool manager called the police. When they arrived the police approached ZH and touched him, which caused him to move closer to the pool. Concerned he would jump, the police officer grabbed his jacket which frightened ZH into jumping into the pool. The judge decided that if this had not happened, there was no reason to believe he would have jumped in.

Although ZH was not able to swim the court heard that he was enjoying himself before lifeguards entered the pool and began to form a cordon to stop him from moving. This is when the situation became a lot worse for ZH. He was eventually pulled out of the swimming pool by two lifeguards. Five police officers then physically restrained him on his back. They were shouting loud commands which ZH could not understand. His carers tried to tell officers that ZH has epilepsy and autism whilst trying to calm ZH down but they were moved away by the police. ZH was handcuffed, put in leg restraints and subsequently soiled himself from distress. He was put in the back of a caged police van, in his soaked and dirty clothes, and was not able to see his carers.

This ordeal had a profound impact on ZH. He developed post-traumatic stress disorder and his epilepsy became more prevalent. His family did not think this treatment was acceptable. They took a case to court, believing that the police's actions had not met the legal duty to respect ZH's rights under the Human Rights Act. This included his right to liberty when he had been detained in the back of the van, his right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment when restrained, and his right to respect for private life given the detrimental impact on his physical and mental well being.

The court agreed with ZH's family that they police had interfered with his human rights. As our Human Rights Act requires, that looked at ZH as a person. They considered his disability, age, vulnerability and the trauma he had suffered, as well as the failure to consider less restrictive alternatives.

It sounds pretty simple, but what this case underscores is the importance of looking at each situation and taking into account the individual person at the heart of a situation. Had the police taken the time to speak with the carers' and acted in a more proportionate way, ZH may have been saved from the suffering he encountered.

In ZH's case, and in many cases involving the police, it was the legal duty in the Human Rights Act which enabled him to get accountability. It is this important aspect of our law which means all public officials have to behave in a way that upholds our rights and learn from the situations that overstep the mark. And that is the power our Human Rights Act can have for public officials - helping to practice prevention rather than cure, making sure people's rights are respected in everyday life.


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