Convict wins right to NHS cosmetic treatment

A double murderer serving a life sentence has won a High Court victory in his long running legal campaign for the right to undergo cosmetic surgery to remove a large facial birthmark.

The publicly funded legal challenge by Dennis Harland Roberts, 59, could prompt other prisoners to seek treatments they might otherwise have been denied because of an undisclosed policy operated by Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary.

The policy restricts prisoners’ access to cosmetic and certain other treatments regarded as non-urgent — even though the labour Government has said that they are entitled to the same NHS care as the rest of the population.

Roberts won a declaration at the High Court in London that Mr Straw had acted unlawfully and “contrary to good administration”in failing to disclose his full policy.

Coincidentally, Roberts, a Category A prisoner, was represented in court by Adam Straw, a barrister who is a nephew of the Justice Secretary.

The court case led to the full policy being publicly revealed last week. After its disclosure, the Ministry of Justice agreed to reconsider Roberts’s application to be escorted to hospital for laser treatment, if he could show that the birthmark was having a negative impact on his health. But Roberts and his lawyers continued their legal action to obtain a formal High Court declaration, making the position clear for other prisoners.

Roberts said that the large, congenital port-wine stain on the left side of his face, neck and shoulder had led to his being bullied at school and was linked to a violent temper. He had previously had hospital treatment to remove it on three occasions, the last one in July 2007. But his appointments last year were cancelled.

Roberts, from Newhaven, Sussex, was convicted at Lewes Crown Court in March 1991 of stabbing to death Stephen and Iris Hadler, both in their 70s, after breaking into their home in the summer of 1989. He is now at Frankland Prison, Durham.

A consultant dermatologist recommended him for treatment for the birthmark in 2006.

The consultant stated: “This has always been an embarrassment to him, but he is now developing small vascular nodules within it and I think that laser treatment on the NHS is entirely justified.”

Roberts said in a written statement to the court that the treatment he had already received appeared to have had some success, lightening and removing some 30 per cent of the birthmark. He said he was “extremely pleased” and was expecting an estimated further four sessions of treatment but delays over further treatment caused by the failure to provide him with hospital escorts had sent him into depression.

Adam Straw told the court that, as a result of being bullied at school, “he has a low tolerance for people commenting on his face. He “feels self-conscious and fearful of his own reaction when he becomes aware of others looking at the mark. When the treatment was halted in July 2007, Roberts slid into depression and his violent temper re-emerged.”

The Government’s full policy, which had now come to light, allowed “elective treatment” only if there was “a negative impact on the prisoner’s mental or physical health”. The policy required the need for treatment to be balanced against “public acceptability” issues, and the fact that Category A escorts were “resource intensive, both for staffing and expenditure”.

This differed from the published policy relied on by the Government in a case last year, which gave inmates “access to the same range and quality of services as the general public receives from the NHS”.

Had Roberts known about the unpublished policy, his lawyer said, he would have sought a medical report to show the impact that the birthmark was having on his health, and legal proceedings would have been avoided.

Mr Straw said that it had been necessary to seek a High Court declaration “to prevent prejudice to many other prisoners with similar claims”. Prisoners were entitled to know the correct policy so that they had a proper and fair chance to make their case.

Agreeing with Mr Straw, Michael Suppertone, QC, a deputy High Court judge, declared in a judgment revealed: “In my judgment it is contrary to good administration, and unlawful, for the defendant’s full policy on medical appointments not to be published.”

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