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UK fined over treatment of mentally ill man

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that police officers who detained a mentally ill man in a cell for more than three days subjected him to “inhuman or degrading treatment”.

4 May 2012

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Judges in Strasbourg ordered the UK government to pay more than £9,000 in compensation to the man, known as MS, for the “excessive period of detention” he endured back in 2004, during which time access to appropriate medical care was delayed. “The court held in particular that the applicant’s prolonged detention without appropriate psychiatric treatment had diminished his human dignity, although there had been no intentional neglect on the part of the police,” said the ruling.

MS was arrested in December 2004 in a “highly agitated” state, while sitting in his car sounding the horn continuously, having earlier “seriously injured” his aunt. He was held at a police station under the Mental Health Act 1983, which allows those suffering from a mental disorder to be detained for up to 72 hours for medical examination.

Although psychiatrists agreed that MS should be transferred to hospital, he continued to be held in the police cell, where he “kept shouting, taking off all of his clothes, banging his head on the wall, drinking from the toilet and smearing himself with food and faeces”, the court heard. He was taken to a clinic only on the fourth day of his arrest.

MS, who is now in his forties, initially brought negligence claims against the NHS over his treatment, but these were rejected at district and county courts.

However, while the ECHR acknowledged that MS’s arrest was justified and that the police or health authorities did not intentionally mistreat him, judges agreed unanimously that “appropriate” medical care was delayed.

“The fact remained that MS had been in a state of great vulnerability throughout his detention at the police station. As indicated by all the medical professionals who examined him, he had been in dire need of appropriate psychiatric treatment,” said the judgment.

“That situation, which persisted until his transfer to the clinic on the fourth day of his detention, diminished excessively his fundamental human dignity … The maximum time limit for the detention of a person in his situation had not been respected,” found the court.

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