Johnson v UK [1997] 27 EHRR 296 (ECtHR)

Human rights – mental health – detention – article 5 European Convention

J, a diagnosed schizophrenic with a ‘psychopathic personality’ was released from a maximum security psychiatric institution, by the Mental Health Tribunal, on the condition of him remaining subject to supervision by psychiatrists and social workers. However, J’s discharge was deferred until a hostel best suited to his particular needs was arranged. J argued that a finding by an expert authority that a person was no longer suffering from the form of mental illness which led to his confinement must inevitably lead to his immediate and unconditional discharge into the community.

The Court held that J’s continued detention was an unlawful breach of article 5 of the Convention. Whilst an expert authority could, in particular cases, legitimately make an individual’s discharge subject to conditions and, if necessary, defer discharge in the light of the conditions imposed, it was of paramount importance that discharge must not be unreasonably delayed and that safeguards exist to prevent such delays.

Although in this case the MHRT was justified in concluding that it was premature to order J’s immediate and unconditional discharge, and the Tribunal’s decision to make J’s release conditional on his remaining subject to psychiatric and social worker supervision did not raise any issue under art. 5(1), the decision to defer J’s discharge until a hostel best suited to his particular needs was arranged in circumstances where the Tribunal lacked the powers to ensure that a placement could in fact be secured within a reasonable period was a breach of art. 5. There were no procedures in place that would have allowed the Tribunal to take any necessary measures to overcome the difficulties encountered by the authorities in implementing the condition and the imposition of the suitable hostel condition therefore led to the indefinite deferral of J’s release since the Tribunals which subsequently reviewed his case at annual intervals in practice ordered his continued detention because the condition had not been implemented. J’s continued detention constituted a breach of art 5.