14:05, August 03 56 0 theguardian.com

2017-08-03 14:05:03
The Guardian view on ‘blood on our hands’: the law’s ultimate warning

Finally, the decade of austerity is being challenged by voices the government simply cannot ignore. First there was the angry and unprecedented lament of the normally helpful Prison Governors Association, whose president, Andrea Albutt, said that her colleagues were “devastated at the complete decline of our service” caused by cuts and capricious reforms. That has proved to be a mere overture to the thunderous denunciation of the catastrophic underfunding of child and adolescent mental health services from Sir James Munby, who is the president of the family division – the senior family judge.

Sir James was hearing a case that will come to stand for all that has failed in the field of child and adolescent mental health services. X is a very vulnerable young woman for whom no appropriate place of treatment can be found: nowhere in all of England has a specialist bed available for a 17-year-old girl who is so ill that every professional opinion agrees that she is at severe risk of taking her own life, and possibly of injuring others. She must be discharged in 11 days’ time. If nowhere is found, then, said the judge, “we, the system, society, the state … will have blood on our hands”.

Sir James has a reputation for speaking out; he has been a particular critic of cuts to family law. He is not afraid of allowing his humanity to show: in May this year he was in the headlines for condemning the cruel policy of separating older people who needed to go into care homes. “People die of broken hearts,” he said.

But his latest censure is pitched at a different level. “I feel shame and embarrassment,” he said in open court. “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 … ”

This is no self-serving posturing. The latest requests through FOIs by the BBC show such a shortage of community places that some people are being kept in scarce hospital beds for years after they are well enough to leave. Last month, a thinktank found that from October 2015 to September 2016, children and young people spent a total of 9,000 days taking precious hospital beds after they were fit to leave because of a shortage of specialist community support. Separately, the hospitals’ umbrella organisation NHS Providers warned last month that all mental health services were in crisis; more than half of all trusts said they were overwhelmed by rising demand, and admitted they were in particular failing children and young people. No wonder there is no safe place for X.

The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has now promised £1.3bn to treat, he claims, another million people by 2021, in a 24/7 mental health service. But nurses fear that is just enough money to restore staffing numbers to 2010 levels. They warn it will do nothing to keep pace with the level of demand.

In this context, the angry cry from Sir James feels not just a justifiable response but a necessary one to the situation that leaves him unable to protect X’s fundamental right to humane and dignified care. As he said, “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 face such problems and have to express himself in such terms.

It is not a protest that can be dismissed as producer interest. This is protest from a senior judge, whose role requires him to do right by the law, and by the people whom it protects.

The traditional defender of the law against the demands of politics was the lord chancellor. But now lord chancellors are themselves political, and the law has no voice in cabinet. Judges, like Sir James, whose duty ultimately is to defend the law itself, can be heard only if they dare to speak out in public. Ministers must stifle the instinct to counter-attack. Instead, they must listen, and they must act.