Learning Disability Today
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Man with a learning disability subject to ‘a regime of cruel treatment’ secures settlement

The High Court has approved a settlement for a learning disabled and autistic man who was subjected to “a regime of cruel and inhumane treatment” at a care home in Devon.

During his 18 months at Veilstone, a residential placement funded by NHS commissioners, Ben was subject to physical and psychological abuse, restricted from seeing his family members and locked away on more than 100 occasions in a ‘quiet room’.

Prior to this, Ben was a resident at Winterbourne View Hospital, where he also experienced abuse.

A regime of punishment and control

During the trial, the High Court heard how Ben was subjected to ‘inhumane and degrading treatment’ during his time at Veilstone.

His family were restricted from seeing him, and they were not allowed to visit at all in his first month at Veilston.

When visits were allowed, they were controlled, with staff members frequently shadowing Ben and his mother Claire. Staff members would also listen to and record Ben’s phone calls with family members.

Ben’s toys and clothes were confiscated from him because they were not ‘age appropriate’, and he often had to complete chores and cleaning in the home before he was allowed trips out or phone calls with his family.

False imprisonment in the ‘quiet room’

Ben was sent to the ‘quiet room’ – a small, locked room without natural light, a bed or toilet facilities – at least 117 times.

While he was in the quiet room, Ben would sometimes wet himself and be left in his own urine. He would often cry out, scream and self-harm, without staff intervening or releasing him from the room.

Staff and managers knew the quiet room was distressing for Ben, as they recorded how upset he was and how he cried for his family while he was in there.

The judge who oversaw the criminal trial, His Honour Justice Hart, said the quiet room “was used as a form of punishment” and it has “no therapeutic value.”

A ‘closed culture’

Ben’s family raised concerns about the Veilstone regime from an early stage, but he wasn’t removed from the premises until October 2011 after a CQC inspection revealed the quiet room’s unlawful deprivation of liberty.

Ben’s family contacted the commissioners and told them of the ‘closed culture’ at Veilstone and how they weren’t being listened to.

Ben’s sister also wrote to his psychiatrist in June 2010 to explain that Ben would understand the limits on family visits as a punishment against him.

She raised concerns that Ben was not allowed to communicate via Makaton and that he was not being permitted to do activities he enjoyed.

The court proceedings were issued for Ben and his mother in 2012, but the legal claim awaited the outcome of three criminal trials against former staff members at Veilstone. In total, 12 staff members were convicted of mistreating residents including Ben.

The claim under the Human Rights Act was brought against the local authority and NHS commissioners of Ben’s placement at Veilstone: Devon County Council and the cluster of NHS Devon and Plymouth & Torbay Primary Care Trust.

The Secretary of State for Health inherited legal responsibility for the claim as the original NHS commissioner no longer exists as a legal entity.

Defendants ordered to apologise and compensate Ben’s family for harm caused

The High Court ruled that Ben’s human rights were breached at Veilstone under Articles 3 (the right not to be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment) and 8 (the right to a family and private life).

The Court also ruled that Claire’s rights were also violated under Article 8, and the defendants were ordered to pay compensation to Ben and Claire (the amount of which is confidential).

The Defendants have also agreed to make formal apologies to Ben and his family. In their letter of apology, Devon Council said: “We recognise and accept that Ben was subjected to a regime of abuse and harm at Veilstone.

“This should never have happened and we offer a full and frank apology to Ben and his family.”

Ben is not the only people with a learning disability to have his human rights breached

In statement, Ben’s family said: “When the system fails, it is people with learning disabilities and their families who pay a high price, with little or no accountability by those responsible- so the apologies and acknowledgement that breaches of human rights are important to us.

“People with learning disabilities and their families have the same human rights as everyone else to be free from harm and abuse, and to have a family life. Whilst this settlement is a landmark, we know sadly that the breaches of human rights underpinning it are far from rare.

“Ben is not the only person with learning disabilities, and we are not the only family, to have our human rights breached. We hope that other families can benefit from this outcome, to champion their own rights and challenge human rights breaches.”

Ben’s solicitor, Catriona Rubens of Leigh Day solicitors, says Ben is now living in his own home with a supportive and consistent staff team where he is not restrained or secluded.

“Things aren’t perfect but Ben gets to do things he enjoys, joke with staff, have a pet he loves, and see and speak to his family when he wants,” Catriona tweeted.

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