Laurence Vick
Posted on 24 Dec 2012

£1 million Pay-out to Mid Staffs' Victims

It was announced this month that Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust has paid out over £1 million in compensation to patients or their families under the Human Rights Act 1998 who suffered 'inhumane and degrading treatment' at the hands of medical staff at Stafford Hospital. 

The announcement comes a month before the findings and recommendations of the £11 million public inquiry into standards of care at Stafford Hospital, led by Robert Francis QC, are to be published. 

A report by the Healthcare Commission, published in March 2009, described a catalogue of failings on the part of the Trust where patients were "routinely neglected" and put at risk through "appalling" care and standards at Stafford Hospital. Press reports at the time claimed that between 400 and 1,200 more people died than would have been expected at a hospital of this type between 2005 and 2008. It was this report that in 2010 led to the commissioning of the public inquiry to determine what exactly went wrong at the hospital in this three year period. 

The legal team behind these compensation claims alleges that the Trust breached the European Convention on Human Rights, namely Article 2 (right to life), Article 3 (prohibition of torture, including inhumane and degrading treatment) and Article 8 (right to respect for a private and family life). 

It was reported claimed that patients were left to sit in their own excrement for long periods of time; others had food and drink placed out of their reach, with some patients forced to drink water out of flower vases. 

The recent 'State of Care' report (2011/2012) by the Care Quality Commission found that 1 in 10 NHS hospitals fail to treat patients with the respect that they deserve and patients are not adequately consulted in the decision-making process about their own care. In addition, 15% of social care services fail to show appropriate respect in the care they provide.  The latest disclosures of maltreatment of patients at Alexandra Hospital Redditch certainly give the impression that Mid-Staffs could be the tip of an iceberg.  

Where individuals have suffered as a result of systemic failures of this kind, their human rights may also have been infringed. For example:

- Article 2 (Right to Life) may be infringed if the individual has been provided with care that is of an unacceptable standard which endangers the individual's life or if they have not been provided with food or drink. Article 2 also requires a suspicious death to be fully investigated, for example through an inquest.

- Article 3 (Prohibition of Torture) may also be raised where an individual has been provided with inadequate treatment. For example the Mid-Staffs' victims allegedly had food and drink put out of their reach and were left to sit in their own excrement, which is arguably inhumane and degrading treatment (an element of Article 3). This Article may also be relevant if there has been forced treatment, without the individual providing valid consent.

- Article 8 (Right to Respect for Private and Family Life) may be infringed where an individual's private medical information is released without their consent or knowledge.

We would be more likely to consider claims for breaches of these Articles where we may have difficulty satisfying the liability and causation elements of a conventional medical negligence claim. There is little authority on cases where a claim has been made under the Human Rights Act in addition to a conventional negligence claim. 

Care does need to be taken as the limitation period for claims under the Human Rights Act is one year; whilst the limitation period applicable to personal injury claims is three years from the treatment/injury or subsequent date of knowledge. Since the Human Rights Act 1998 came into force in October 2000, rights conferred by the European Convention of Human Rights can be enforced in our own courts, without the need to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. 

The findings of the CQC suggest that the issues raised in the Mid Staffs scandal will be encountered in the future. The circumstances behind the claims against Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust are unlikely to prove unique.  At the Alexandra Hospital, patients were left to starve (we saw a death certificate noting as the cause of death the correct medical term "inanition"); food was deliberately put out of reach; some patients were left for hours in their own faeces; others were so dehydrated doctors literally had to prescribe water for them.  These failings were so fundamental and the treatment so degrading and so compromised their privacy that - as with Mid-Staffs - it may have breached patients' human rights.  

This is an area of the law that is likely to develop once the Mid-Staffs Report is published in the New Year.

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