The Ballerina’s Dignity

This week all of our human rights stories are about disability rights

Human rights are about basic dignity. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the courts are willing to get involved every time someone’s basic dignity is being violated. Here is a difficult and heart-wrenching example.

Elaine McDonald, a former prima ballerina with the Scottish Ballet, suffered a serious stroke at the age of 56.  Her mobility became severely restricted.  She had a bladder condition which meant she had to go to the toilet two or three times at night and needed assistance to go to the toilet.  Her husband was not able to provide this assistance.

Her local authority refused to pay for the night-time carers she needed to help her to the toilet.  They said they could not afford it, and would only agree to pay for incontinence pads to meet her night-time needs.  Elaine took her local authority to court, arguing that they had breached her right to a private life, because taking away the assistance she needed to get to the toilet was the same as taking away her dignity.

She lost her case in the UK court. She took her case to the the European Court of Human Rights, which disagreed, but only to an extent. The judges said that reducing Elaine’s level of health care did come within the meaning of the right to a private life. The level of care offered by her local authority would have undignified and distressing consequences.

The local authority was, however, legally entitled to take its own resources into account when deciding the level of care it could provide Elaine with. The European Court held that the local authority had breached Mrs McDonald’s human rights for the period of time when they had not followed their care plan properly, but had not breached her human rights for the period of time when they had acted properly.

This decision is important, because it means that local authorities must consider a person’s ideas of self and personal identity, when assessing their healthcare needs.  Local authorities are, however, usually entitled to provide healthcare according to their own resources, which may be scarce. Sometimes, resources trump dignity.

This story is a short summary of a legal decision. You can read the full text here

Media Coverage of this story