The family of a mental patient who died after stepping out of a psychiatric unit’s sixth floor window have won a resounding victory at the European Court of Human Rights.
In a ruling likely to spark a major shift in the law, the Strasbourg-court said David Reynolds’s loved ones had been denied an “effective remedy” by the English legal system.
Mr Reynolds, 35, died after smashing a window at the Independent Support Moving On Scheme unit at Mixenden Court, in Halifax, hours after his admission in March 2005.
He had a history of mental illness and had that day complained of hearing voices ordering him to kill himself, but a coroner entered an “open” verdict at an inquest into his death.
His mother, Patricia Reynolds, of Hebden Bridge, launched a claim for compensation under the Human Rights Act, but she saw it struck out by a county court judge and was told she had “no prospect” of appealing the decision.
Mrs Reynolds has since died, but her daughter, Catherine King, took up the legal cudgels and landed a ground-breaking blow when the European court awarded 7,000 euros in compensation, plus another 8,000 euros in legal costs, against the UK Government.
In its decision, the Strasbourg court said Mrs Reynolds’s rights had been breached because she was given no “effective remedy” by the English courts for the death of her child.
She had been told she had to prove “at least gross negligence of a kind sufficient to sustain a charge of manslaughter” to win her case under English law.
Although the authorities accepted that they owed Mr Reynolds a duty of care, his mother had “no viable cause of action” because she did not claim to be financially dependent on her son.
As his death was “instantaneous”, there could also be no viable claim on behalf of his estate for his own “pain and suffering”, and his mother would not have been able to obtain legal aid even to claim back his funeral expenses, the court said.
Mr Reynolds had a history of schizophrenia, but, having been assessed as a “low” suicide risk, had been transferred from Calderdale Royal Hospital to the Mixenden Court unit.
Later that evening, March 16, 2005, he was seen wandering around outside, persuaded to go back in and then broke a window and fell to his death.
“The windows have since been reinforced and the long-term plan is to transfer the ISMOS unit to a two-storey building,” said the European court’s panel.
“In those circumstances, the court considers that there is an arguable claim that the position of the applicant’s son was such that an operational duty arose to take reasonable steps to protect him from a real and immediate risk of suicide and that that duty was not fulfilled.”
The court said Mrs Reynolds’s right under Article 13 of the Convention to an “effective remedy” under the law had been violated when read in conjunction with Article 2, which enshrines the “right to life”.
“The applicant had no prospect of obtaining adequate compensation for the non-pecuniary damage suffered by her as a result of the death of her child,” it added.
“The court has, therefore, concluded that the present applicant did not have available to her, prior to the introduction of her application to this court, civil proceedings to establish any liability and compensation due as regards the non-pecuniary damage suffered by her on her son’s death.
“The court, therefore, concludes that there has been a violation of Article 13, in conjunction with Article 2 of the Convention.”