Zeena and her brother and two sisters lived at home with their parents. They were first referred to social services by a health visitor when Zeena, the oldest sibling, was 5 years old. Zeena was reported to be stealing food. The family was reviewed but the case file was closed. A neighbour then reported that the children were locked out of the home for most of the day and their grandmother complained to social services about the mother's care and discipline of the children. When investigating a burglary, the police reported that the children’s bedrooms were filthy, and their mattresses sodden with urine. School teachers also reported bruising and their concerns about the childrens health and behaviour.

Despite these complaints and reports to social services, the children were not removed for five years, when they were placed in emergency care at the insistence of their mother. The children were able to access legal advice, and they decided to take the local authority to court for breaching their right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment because of their failure to take action (this right is protected by Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights).

This happened before the Human Rights Act was law, which meant the case had to go to the European Court of Human Rights. The Court said the treatment was serious enough to be inhuman and degrading. The psychiatrist who treated the children described it as ‘horrific’. They said that after the local authority became aware of what was happening at home, following the warning of the health visitor, they had a positive duty to protect the children from the inhuman treatment they knew was happening and had the power to stop.

Z v United Kingdom (2001)