07:55, August 03 98 0 theguardian.com

2017-08-03 07:55:03
Judge warns of 'blood on our hands' if suicidal girl is forced out of secure care

The nation will have “blood on its hands” if an NHS hospital bed cannot be found within days for a teenage girl believed to be at acute risk of taking her own life, according to the UK’s most senior family judge.

Sir James Munby said he felt “ashamed and embarrassed” that no hospital place had been found that could take proper care of the unnamed 17-year-old when she is due to be released from youth custody in 11 days’ time.

The extraordinary intervention in the family court judgment highlights the state of mental health provision in the UK, with Munby saying it demonstrated the “disgraceful and utterly shaming lack of proper provision in this country of the clinical, residential and other support services”.

Munby’s judgment deals with the case of a girl named only as X, who has made a large number of “determined attempts” on her life. She is due to be released from a secure unit, referred to as ZX for legal reasons, and doctors believe she needs to be placed in further care for her own protection. But, so far, none has been found.

“If, when in 11 days’ time she is released from ZX, we, the system, society, the state, are unable to provide X with the supportive and safe placement she so desperately needs, and if, in consequence, she is enabled to make another attempt on her life, then I can only say, with bleak emphasis: we will have blood on our hands,” Munby wrote.

Munby wrote: “We are, even in these times of austerity, one of the richest countries in the world. Our children and young people are our future. X is part of our future. It is a disgrace to any country with pretensions to civilisation, compassion and, dare one say it, basic human decency, that a judge in 2017 should be faced with the problems thrown up by this case and should have to express himself in such terms.

“X is, amongst all her woes, a young person convicted in the youth court and a prisoner of the state. As long ago as 1910, a home secretary, speaking in the House of Commons, asserted that: ‘The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.’

“In modern times, the principle has expanded, so that, as is often said: ‘One of the measures of a civilised society is how well it looks after the most vulnerable members of its society.’

“If this is the best we can do for X, and others in similar crisis, what right do we, what right do the system, our society and indeed the state itself, have to call ourselves civilised? The honest answer to this question should make us all feel ashamed. For my own part, acutely conscious of my powerlessness – of my inability to do more for X – I feel shame and embarrassment; shame, as a human being, as a citizen and as an agent of the state, embarrassment as president of the family division, and, as such, head of family justice, that I can do no more for X.”

Munby has often issued public warnings highlighting shortcomings in the justice and care system in Britain. On an earlier occasion, he threw down a direct challenge to the government over legal aid, suggesting courts spend money in defiance of Ministry of Justice cuts to ensure justice is done.

Earlier this year, he drew attention to the plight of women in the family courts who are subjected to direct questioning by men who had previously violently abused them and called on the government to ban the practice.

  • In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here