Johnson v. United Kingdom

App. No. 22520/93, 27 Eur. H.R. Rep. 296 (1999).
Download Judgment: English

Applicant was a British national suffering from mental illness whilst on prison remand in 1984. He had served sentences for various physical assault convictions. The court imposed a hospital order on the applicant and subjected him to a heightened restriction order for the protection of the public from serious harm under the 1983 Mental Health Act. The applicant responded quite well to treatment and by 1989, he was deemed free of any symptoms of mental illness and was, accordingly, no longer detainable under the 1983 Act. This led to his conditional discharge to reside in a supervised hostel until 1993, date of his release.

The applicant complained that his detention between 15 June 1989, the date when the Tribunal first found him to be no longer suffering from mental illness, and 12 January 1993, the date when his absolute discharge was ordered, was in violation of Article 5 § 1 (right to liberty and security of the person) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The applicant claimed that more than three tribunals had confirmed his suitability for discharge and that the hostel requirement was onerous, unnecessary and disproportionate. He claimed the hostel condition was unlawful, pointing out that the 1989 Tribunal had neither the legal power to direct a hostel to accept him nor to specify a time-frame for execution of the condition. Alternatively, the excessive duration in the hostel could not be justified by the authorities’ margin of appreciation or limited resources arguments.

The Court rejected Johnson’s submission that he should have been immediately and unconditionally released from detention as the 1989 Tribunal – in exercising its expert and discretionary judgment – had properly concluded that it was premature to do so.

However, the indefinite deferral of the applicant’s release from Rampton Hospital after 15 June 1989 deprived the applicant of his liberty in an arbitrary fashion in violation of Article 5 § 1 of the Convention. It reasoned that a requirement to remain under psychiatrist and the social-worker supervision could have substituted for the function of the hostel and would have avoided the applicant’s immediate discharge into the community. This delay coupled with the lack of safeguards (for example, the Tribunal’s lack of power to guarantee that the applicant would be relocated to a suitable post-discharge hostel within a reasonable period of time) led to the applicant’s continued confined in breach of Article 5 § 1 of the ECHR.

"61. By maintaining that the 1989 Tribunal was satisfied that he was no longer suffering from the mental illness which led to his committal to Rampton Hospital, Mr Johnson is arguing that the abovementioned third condition as to the persistence of mental disorder was not fulfilled and he should as a consequence have been immediately and unconditionally released from detention. The Court cannot accept that submission. In its view it does not automatically follow from a finding by an expert authority that the mental disorder which justified a patient’s compulsory confinement no longer persists, that the latter must be immediately and unconditionally released into the community. Such a rigid approach to the interpretation of that condition would place an unacceptable degree of constraint on the responsible authority’s exercise of judgment to determine in particular cases and on the basis of all the relevant circumstances whether the interests of the patient and the community into which he is to be released would in fact be best served by this course of action. It must also be observed that in the field of mental illness the assessment as to whether the disappearance of the symptoms of the illness is confirmation of complete recovery is not an exact science. Whether or not recovery from an episode of mental illness which justified a patient’s confinement is complete and definitive or merely apparent cannot in all cases be measured with absolute certainty. It is the behaviour of the patient in the period spent outside the confines of the psychiatric institution which will be conclusive of this."

"66. However, while imposing the hostel residence requirement on the applicant and deferring his release until the arrangements had been made to its satisfaction, the Tribunal lacked the power to guarantee that the applicant would be relocated to a suitable post-discharge hostel within a reasonable period of time. The onus was on the authorities to secure a hostel willing to admit the applicant. It is to be observed that they were expected to proceed with all reasonable expedition in finalising the arrangements for a placement (see paragraph 44 above). While the authorities made considerable efforts to this end, these efforts were frustrated by the reluctance of certain hostels to accept the applicant as well as by the latter’s negative attitude with respect to the options available (see paragraphs 20 and 21 above). They were also constrained by the limited number of available placements. Admittedly, a suitable hostel may have been located within a reasonable period of time had the applicant adopted a more positive approach to his rehabilitation. However, this cannot refute the conclusion that neither the Tribunal nor the authorities possessed the necessary powers to ensure that the condition could be implemented within a reasonable time. Furthermore, the earliest date on which the applicant could have had his continued detention reviewed was twelve months after the review conducted by the June 1989 Tribunal (see paragraph 44 above). In between reviews the applicant could not petition the Tribunal to have the terms of the hostel residence condition reconsidered; nor was the Tribunal empowered to monitor periodically outside the annual reviews the progress made in the search for a hostel and to amend the deferred conditional discharge order in the light of the difficulties encountered by the authorities. While the Secretary of State could have referred the applicant’s case to the Tribunal at any time (see paragraph 44 above) it is to be noted that this possibility was unlikely to be effected in practice since even at the date of the January 1993 Tribunal the authorities maintained their opposition to the applicant’s release from detention until he had fulfilled the hostel condition (see paragraph 33 above)."