On 2 October 2000 our Human Rights Act became law, protecting universal human rights across the UK. Fifteen years on, this October BIHR has organised 15 days of action, including our Human Rights Tour with events across the UK to celebrate the difference our Human Rights Act has made to our democracy and people’s lives across the UK.  Each day we will be looking at one story from each of the years the Human Rights Act has been in force, today is the turn of 2013 and the case of ZH v The Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis.

ZH, as he was known during the case, has autism and epilepsy. When he was 16 he visited the swimming pool with his school. He wasn’t planning on swimming; it was a school trip to get himself and his class more familiar with the pool and surroundings. As the group were leaving, ZH broke away and walked to the swimming pool edge. He became fixated and mesmerised by the water, something which is typical for people with autism. The pool manager became agitated and concerned that ZH may jump in. His carers explained that they could de-escalate the situation over time and not to approach ZH because he had an aversion to being touched in an unfamiliar way and this could provoke him into jumping.

However, the pool manager called the police. When they arrived the police approached ZH and touched him, which caused him to move closer to the pool. Concerned he would jump, the police officer grabbed his jacket which frightened ZH into jumping into the pool. The judge decided that if this had not happened, there was no reason to believe he would have jumped in.

ZH was not able to swim but it was reported that he was enjoying himself before lifeguards entered the pool and began to form a cordon to stop him from moving. This is when the situation became a lot worse for ZH. He was eventually pulled out of the swimming pool by two lifeguards. Five police officers then physically restrained him on his back. They were shouting loud commands which ZH could not understand. His carers tried to tell the police officers that ZH was epileptic and autistic whilst trying to calm ZH down but they were moved away by the police. Eventually ZH was handcuffed, put in leg restraints and subsequently soiled himself from distress. He was put in the back of a caged police van, soaking wet and soiled and was not able to see his carers.

The impact of this ordeal on ZH was profound. He developed post-traumatic stress disorder and his epilepsy had become more prevalent. His family did not think this treatment was acceptable. They took a case to court arguing that the police had unlawfully interfered with ZHs human rights. They argued they had interfered with his right to liberty by detaining him in the back of the van, his right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment by restraining him and his right to respect for private life by treating him in a way which detrimentally impacted on his physical and mental wellbeing.

The court agreed. Taking into account ZHs disability, his age, vulnerability and the lasting detrimental impact this had on him, and the failure to consider less restrictive alternatives, they found that the police had interfered with ZHs human rights.

The key learning from this case is the importance of assessing a situation and taking into account the individual person at the heart of a situation. Had the police taken the time to speak with the carers’ and acted in a more proportionate way, ZH may have been saved from the suffering he encountered.

It was because of the Human Rights Act that ZH was able to seek accountability and justice for the treatment he received. And it is the legal duty in the Human Rights Act which means that all public officials (not just the police) have to behave in a way that upholds our rights and learn from the situations that overstep the mark. This means that we are able to promote a culture of respect for human rights across all of society - in our small places, close to home.