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Care home campaigner loses Strasbourg appeal

8 June 2010

Yvonne Hossack, the solicitor campaigning for the rights of the elderly, has lost a key appeal at the European Court of Human Rights in her battle against the closure of care homes.

The ruling is a further setback for the Kettering practitioner, who has acted for more than 80 elderly care home residents, and was hit by a wasted costs order for the first time earlier this year (see Solicitors Journal 154/11, 23 March 2010). The sole practitioner had taken the case of one of her clients to Strasbourg, claiming that her transfer to a new home would greatly reduce her life expectancy.

The ECtHR has now ruled that the transfer represented a risk for the pensioners involved but that the local authority’s decision was not unlawful.

Hossack told Solicitors Journal she was disappointed but she will continue to pursue the cases of two other clients about to reach Europe. She said she was hoping to get medical experts to agree on a generic opinion on the impact of care home closures on elderly people which could be applied to a number of cases.

“They can’t speak for themselves so we have to speak for them,” she said.

Louisa Watts, who at 106 is one of Britain’s oldest women, was moved to the home against her will. Her application against the move was rejected at first instance by the High Court.

On appeal, Lord Justice Sedley said there was nothing unlawful in the decision by the local authority, Wolverhampton City Council, to close Mrs Watts’ old home and move her to the new one.

Having been refused leave to appeal further, Hossack took the case to Strasbourg, arguing that the council’s decision to transfer the resident presented an inherent risk that her life expectancy would decrease by 25 per cent, which was incompatible with her right to life in article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

She also argued the move breached her right to privacy and family life in article 8.

In a decision last month, which has only just been made public, the Strasbourg judges found that the case of Louisa Watts v United Kingdom was not admissible.

The judges acknowledged, however, that “a badly managed transfer of elderly residents of a care home could well have a negative impact on their life expectancy”, and that article 2 was applicable in the present case.

It appeared, however, that the procedure for the closure of Underhill House had been “carefully managed in order to allow full consideration of residents’ views and, in respect of the transfer, their health and well-being”.

The court added there was “no reason to doubt” that the council had sought to minimise any risk to Mrs Watts’ life.

Further, it was within the local authority’s powers to set out a general policy to rationalise care for the elderly in its area.

“Closure would allow the council’s budget to be distributed in a more cost-effective manner. A requirement to keep the home open indefinitely would have a significant impact on the local authority’s ability to provide care to other users in the area and to manage its resources effectively,” the judges said.

Similar considerations applied to the alleged breach of article 8, which the ECtHR found was engaged but not infringed.

The court pointed out that the council had “consistently made it clear” that it was ready to take steps to ensure that Mrs Watts was “placed together with three of her friends”.

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Tribunals & Courts Vulnerable Clients Local government