Trafficking, Human Rights and the Duty to Investigate

In a deeply disturbing case, the High Court has ruled that the police can be liable for a failure to investigate the ill-treatment of victims of trafficking.

The claimants in OOO & Others v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis were young Nigerian women, unlawfully brought to the United Kingdom and subject to years of physical and emotional abuse whilst working, for no pay, in various London households. They complained that the police had failed to investigate their allegations over a period of some two and a half years. There was no dispute that the claimants had been subject to treatment that amounted to a breach of Articles 3 and 4 of the European Convention (the rights not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment and the right not to be held in slavery or servitude).

Walker J decided that

“The duty to investigate will be triggered once the police receive a credible allegation that Articles 3 and/or 4 (as the case may be) have been infringed however that information comes to their attention.”

The police had sought to argue that it had not been possible to commence an investigation because of the lack of co-operation on the part of the claimants. The judge rejected this, explaining that the claimants had provided written statements to their solicitors and a meeting had taken place in which the various concerns had been aired. The police officers who had attended this meeting “did nothing to commence an effective investigation”.

The judge went on to find that an effective investigation only eventually took place (resulting in one successful prosecution) because of the threat of legal proceedings. In the light of all the facts, the appropriate award to each claimant was £5,000.

The extreme vulnerability of trafficking victims is well-known, but this case illustrates that the state institutions charged with ensuring their safety often fail to recognise this fact. Indeed, it is a striking feature of this case that the officers who failed to investigate formed part of the Metropolitan Police’s specialist unit dealing with child victims of trafficking. However, the decision provides a valuable example of how human rights law is being used to provide remedies for some of the most exploited individuals in society, as well as illustrating the increased willingness of the courts to apply well-established jurisprudence from the Strasbourg court to relatively novel situations.

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