European Court of Human Rights judgment in the case of four children who suffered abuse and neglect.
The black cab rapist
In 2009, John Worboys, the ‘black cab rapist’, was found guilty of sexually assaulting 12 women. Police now believe he used ‘date-rape’ drugs to attack over 100 female customers between 2002 and 2008. Women known as DSD and NBV both reported their belief that they had been raped to the police. Both felt that during and after the investigations, the police didn’t believe their stories or take the inquiries seriously.
The question in this case was whether human rights was whether the police, in failing to investigate allegations effectively, subjected victims to “inhuman and degrading treatment”, breaching the Human Rights Convention.
Date-rape drugs confuse victims and often cause them to lose their memories. The difficulty this causes for women who suspect they may have been raped is recognised in police guidelines relating to drug-related assault. The Court found that in many attacks subsequently attributed to Worboys, these guidelines were not followed. Police neither believed allegations, nor conducted enquiries properly. This had a profoundly damaging effect on the women’s mental health, and meant that the police failed to ‘join the dots’ between similar cases for over 6 years.
The Court said the failings did result in in “inhuman and degrading treatment”. This shows how important it is that authorities take seriously and investigate thoroughly accusations of sexual assault.
Many women Worboys attacked only felt able to come forward after he had been accused because they were afraid that they, like DSD and NBV, would not be believed. Recognising women’s legal right to be heard means that police must treat women in this situation as potential victims of serious crime, who must have their reports properly investigated. More broadly, this will hopefully contribute to undermining the victim-blaming attitude that persists around sexual violence, focussing on the attacker’s culpability rather than the women’s conduct.
This story is a short summary of a legal judgment. You can read the full judgment here.
Screaming to an empty room
Imagine being accused of a crime you didn’t commit. Imagine if the accusation led to you spending the rest of your life behind bars. Worse, imagine if there was no way for you to tell your side of the story, if you were left screaming to an empty room.
Ian Simms and Michael O’Brien were convicted of separate murders. They persistently protested their innocence. They ran out of options in the courts and decided to try and get a journalist to investigate, so they could tell their side of the story. But the prison refused to let them speak to a journalist.
Simms and O’Brien took the prison to court, saying that the ability of the prison to refuse to allow journalists to visit and interview prisoners was in breach of their freedom of speech. The court agreed with them, saying that journalists should be able to interview prisoners as a way of making sure there were no miscarriages of justice.
The judge said that freedom of speech was necessary in the “exposure of errors” of the criminal justice system. The case is famous because the court said that if the state wants to interfere with fundamental rights, like free speech, it has to do so clearly and explicitly. “Fundamental rights”, said Lord Hoffmann, “cannot be overridden by general or ambiguous words”.
After this case, prison policy in the UK was changed. Journalists are now allowed to interview prisoners so that they can help them investigate and challenge any miscarriages of justice. Meanwhile, O’Brien was released and exonerated of murder. Simms, however, was not. He remains in prison.
Listen to me
Four siblings were born between 1982 and 1988. On numerous occasions between 1987 and 1992 grandparents, teachers and neighbours told others they were worried about the children. In 1987 the oldest child was reported to be stealing food, in 1988 a neighbour reported that the children were locked outside the house for most of the day and in 1989 the house was searched and found to be filthy. Used dirty nappies were discarded in a cupboard and the children’s mattresses were sodden with urine.
Social services were alerted… again… and again. They helped very little. In 1992, the mother cried out that she could no longer cope and threatened to batter the children if no one stepped in. The children were finally taken into care. They were seen by a psychiatrist who said it was the worst case of physical and emotional neglect she had seen and that social services had “leant over backwards to avoid putting the children on the Child Protection Register and had delayed too long, leaving at least three of the children with serious psychological disturbance as a result”.
The children’s guardian took social services to court for failing to protect them from abuse. The English court said it had no remedy for them. To let them sue social services would encourage future families to do the same and make social workers over-cautious.
So they took the case to the European Court of Human Rights. The Court said the children had been subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment. The local authority failed in their duty to protect them. They were awarded £32,000 each to reflect the pain and distress they endured.
The children continued to suffer depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and lack of integration in education and society. Money was never going to make good what went wrong. But this case may make social workers that bit more unlikely to ignore warnings. Full judgment here.
The Conservative government wants to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. We don’t yet know what that will look like. Meanwhile, public debate is fogged by misinformation and lack of understanding. Human rights advocates need to convey to people why human rights matters to them.
These three short stories about real human rights cases were first posted on a new site, RightsInfo, which provides clear and reliable information about why human rights matter. The stories were written by the RightsInfo Project Volunteers and edited by Adam Wagner. RightsInfo is turning 50 key human rights cases into plain-English stories and publishing one each weekday. You can find the full list here.
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