In a test case on the conditions under which three individuals are living, the supreme court said that their medical conditions did not entitle the state to deny them their human rights.
Lady Hale, deputy president of the court, said that the state had a duty to care for disabled people. The fact that disabled people might be deprived of liberty in care facilities, where living arrangements were comfortable, made no difference. A “gilded cage”, she said, was “still a cage”.
The supreme court ruled that all three – a severely incapacitated man and two severely mentally handicapped sisters – had been “deprived of their liberty” under the terms of mental health legislation. The decision overturned an earlier appeal court ruling.
“It is axiomatic that people with disabilities, both mental and physical, have the same human rights as the rest of the human race,” said Lady Hale.
“It may be that those rights have sometimes to be limited or restricted because of their disabilities, but the starting point should be the same as that for everyone else. This flows inexorably from the universal character of human rights, founded on the inherent dignity of all human beings.
“Far from disability entitling the state to deny such people human rights: rather it places upon the state (and upon others) the duty to make reasonable accommodation to cater for the special needs of those with disabilities. “Those rights include the right to physical liberty … This is not a right to do or to go where one pleases. It is a more focused right, not to be deprived of that physical liberty.
“But, as it seems to me, what it means to be deprived of liberty must be the same for everyone, whether or not they have physical or mental disabilities.
“If it would be a deprivation of my liberty to be obliged to live in a particular place, subject to constant monitoring and control, only allowed out with close supervision, and unable to move away without permission even if such an opportunity became available, then it must also be a deprivation of the liberty of a disabled person.”
She added: “The fact that my living arrangements are comfortable, and indeed make my life as enjoyable as it could possibly be, should make no difference. A gilded cage is still a cage.”
Periodic checks are needed to ensure that the arrangements made for them are “in their best interests”, she concluded.
Charities working with disabled people said it was a “landmark” for the protection of vulnerable people. The Equality and Human Rights Commission welcomed the ruling. Its chief legal officer, Rebecca Hilsenrath, said: “We intervened in this case because we wanted to clarify the extent of protection for people with disabilities. This decision makes it clear that care arrangements must be checked and gives protection to the most vulnerable in society.”