Liberty intervenes in case of autistic child heavily restrained by Met Police

22 January 2013

This week Liberty intervened in the case of “ZH”, a severely autistic child who was heavily restrained by police officers while he visited a local swimming pool.

During the trip ZH became fixated by the water. His carer tried to gently distract him, being careful not to touch him given his condition. The carer was also concerned any contact would prompt the child to jump into the pool – despite not being able to swim. ZH presented no danger to anyone but the pool manager called the police. On arrival an officer failed to consult the carer and went straight up to ZH, touched him on the back and started talking to him directly.

As feared the child jumped into the pool as a result. He was then forcibly removed from the water and very heavily restrained by seven police officers. Cold, wet and terrified, he was taken in restraints and put into a cage in a police van.

ZH was left traumatised and later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. His father brought claims against the police for assault, battery and false imprisonment; disability discrimination and human rights violations under Articles 3, 5, and 8 of the Human Rights Act – no inhuman or degrading treatment, the right to liberty and the right to respect for private and family life.

The County Court upheld those claims – finding in particular that the child had been subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment. But the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police appealed – bringing the case back before the Court of Appeal. He objected to suggestions officers should have consulted the carer – arguing it would interfere with the police’s “operational discretion”. Liberty has intervened to highlight that – in this and other cases involving vulnerable people – negative outcomes can easily result because police are improperly trained and fail to take appropriate advice.

Emma Norton, legal officer for Liberty, said: “In a case like this, simple common sense dictates that the police talk to the carer before deciding to intervene with a disabled child who is not hurting anyone. It also happens to be the law.

“The guiding principle is the best interests of the vulnerable person. It would be a good deal easier if the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police would agree to set up some proper autism awareness training for his officers. As long as the police deny the lessons of this horrifying case, people like ZH continue to be at risk from the very people who are meant to protect them.”

Contact: Liberty Press Office on 020 7378 3656 or 07973 831128


1. Article 3 of the Human Rights Act provides that no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It is one of the most important provisions in the Human Rights Act. It is an absolute right – in no circumstances will it ever be justifiable to torture someone. There are a number of obligations on the UK in respect of this prohibition, both negative (prohibiting public authorities from doing things) and positive (requiring the State to take certain action).