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Supreme Court ‘Right to Life’ Ruling on Damages for Parents of Suicide Victim

Supreme Court ‘Right to Life’ Ruling on Damages for Parents of Suicide Victim

Case Information

Rabone and another (Appellants) v Pennine Care NHS Trust (Respondent) [2012] UKSC 2
On appeal from [2010] EWCA Civ 811
JUSTICES: Lord Walker, Lady Hale, Lord Brown, Lord Mance and Lord Dyson.

Judgment

The parents of a 24-year-old woman who was released from hospital hours before she took her own life have won their appeal for damages in negligence.

Melanie Rabone had a history of depression and tried to commit suicide on 4 March 2005. She was treated at Stepping Hill Hospital where Dr Meagher, a consultant psychiatrist, diagnosed her as suffering from a severe episode of a recurrent depressive disorder. She was considered fit for release on 18 March but on 31 March she cut both her wrists with broken glass. After being taken back to hospital she was judged to be at a moderate to high risk of suicide. Melanie’s father expressed concern about his daughter and a desire for her not to be released. On 19 April, Dr Meagher returned from leave and after speaking to Melanie and hearing her desire to go home he agreed to release her for two days despite her mother being present and expressing concern. The following day she hanged herself from a tree.

On 11 August 2006, Mr Rabone issued proceedings claiming damages in negligence on behalf of Melanie’s estate and under Article 2 (the right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights on behalf of himself and Mrs Rabone. The estate’s claim was settled in May 2008 for £7,500 plus costs. In relation to the Article 2 claims, six issues arise on this appeal: (i) whether the operational obligation under Article 2 can in principle be owed to a hospital patient who is mentally ill but not detained; (ii)  if so, whether the Respondent Trust breached that duty; (iii) if so, whether Mr and Mrs Rabone were ‘victims’ within the meaning of the Convention; (iv) if so, whether they lost their victim status by reason of the settlement; (v) whether their claims were time-barred; and, if not (vi) whether the Court of Appeal erred in holding that they would have awarded £5,000 each to Mr and Mrs Rabone if their claims had been established.

The Supreme Court unanimously allows the appeal. Lord Dyson gives the leading judgment, with which Lord Walker, Lady Hale, Lord Brown and Lord Mance agree. Lady Hale, Lord Brown and Lord Mance each add further comments of their own.

Reasons for judgment

[Numbers in brackets relate to paragraph numbers in the judgment]
This appeal concerns the positive duty imposed by Article 2 of the Convention on States to take preventative operational measures to safeguard an individual’s life in certain circumstances: [12]. The central question in relation to the first issue is whether the admitted negligence of the Respondent in its treatment of Melanie is to be assimilated to the line of case law pertaining to negligent hospital treatment (in which case there is no duty under Article 2), or whether the fact that Melanie was a psychiatric patient (though not detained) means that this case should be assimilated to the class of cases where an operational duty arises: [20]. No European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) decision was cited to the Court which clearly articulates the criteria by which such a duty exists in particular circumstances, but there are certain indicia which point that way: [22].

While there are differences between detained and voluntary psychiatric patients, these should not be exaggerated: [27]. Melanie was admitted to hospital because she was a real suicide risk. By reason of her mental state, she was extremely vulnerable. The Trust assumed responsibility for her; she was under its control. The difference between Melanie’s position and that of a hypothetical detained psychiatric patient would have been one of form not substance: [34]. The Trust owed Melanie the operational duty to take reasonable steps to protect her from the real and immediate risk of suicide. The risk of Melanie’s suicide was ‘real’; it was real enough for the expert psychiatrists to give evidence that all ordinarily competent and responsible psychiatrists would have regarded Melanie as being in need of protection against the risk of suicide: [38]. The risk existed when Melanie left hospital and continued during the two-day period of home leave. It was therefore also an immediate risk: [40–41]. As the decision to allow home leave was one that no reasonable psychiatric practitioner would have made, the Trust failed to do all that could reasonably have been expected to prevent the real and immediate risk of Melanie’s suicide and it breached its operational duty: [43].

The ECtHR has repeatedly stated that family members of the deceased can bring claims in their own right under Article 2 of the Convention: [44–46]. A person ceases to be a victim where the domestic authority has provided adequate redress and has acknowledged, either expressly or in substance, the breach of the Convention: [49]. By settling the estate’s claim, Mr Rabone did not renounce their Article 2 claim for damages for non-pecuniary loss for their bereavement. No such claim was available in English law as damages for bereavement are only available for the loss of a child where the child is under 18: [58]. Nor was the £7,500 received by the estate adequate redress: [59–63]. Mr and Mrs Rabone are therefore victims and have not lost that status.

A claim against a public authority for breach of a Convention right must be brought within a year of the act complained of or such longer period as the court considers equitable. The extension of time sought was less than four months; there is no suggestion that the evidence has become less cogent as a result of the delay; the Trust has suffered no prejudice by the delay; Mr and Mrs Rabone acted reasonably in not issuing proceedings, and; they have a good claim for breach of Article 2. Time should therefore be extended: [77–79]. This was a bad case of breach of the Article 2 operational duty which merited an award well above the lower end of the range of awards. The Trust’s challenge to the Court of Appeal’s assessment of £5,000 each therefore fails: [88].

  • Rabone and another (Appellants) v Pennine Care NHS Trust (Respondent) [2012] UKSC 2
    On appeal from [2010] EWCA Civ 811
    JUSTICES: Lord Walker, Lady Hale, Lord Brown, Lord Mance and Lord Dyson.
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