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Justice for victims of child abuse

Z. and others v. the United Kingdom  | 2001

Justice for victims of child abuse

The case was the worst case of neglect and emotional abuse that [the child psychiatrist] had seen in her professional career.

Judgment of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, 10th May 2001

Background

Whilst in their parents’ care, four children were exposed to what a child psychiatrist later described as “horrific” experiences. Social services had monitored the family for four-and-a-half years, but had failed to take steps to protect the children. According to the psychologist, this meant that at least three of the children had developed a serious psychological disturbance, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

Eventually, the children were placed in foster care. Acting on their behalf, the official solicitor applied for damages from the local authority, claiming that the local authority had failed to have proper regard for the children’s welfare and to take effective steps to protect them.

The House of Lords rejected the case, finding that UK law did not grant the children the right to bring such a claim. The case was brought to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The Strasbourg court found that the authority had known about the abuse and had the power to take steps to protect the children, including removing them from the home. However, the authority had not done so for four-and-a-half years.

By failing to protect the children, the authorities had breached their right not to be exposed to inhuman and degrading treatment. The refusal to allow the children to bring a claim against the authority had also denied them a chance to have their claims examined, and the opportunity to be awarded damages. They had had no access to an effective remedy for the violation of their basic rights.

Follow-up

Together with other cases decided in the national courts, this judgment helped establish children’s right to claim damages from local authorities when they had been abused as a result of the authorities’ negligence. 

The children in the case were awarded damages, which provided funds for future psychological care.

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