This is intended to be a beginner’s guide to the Court of Protection, not exclusively intended for lawyers. There are, in fact, some journalists who might benefit from it. You may have been reading about the Italian woman who underwent a ceasarean section without her consent, and want to know how decisions like this are supposed to be made and what powers the Courts have.
To be fair to the national press, I’ve just had to expand 3000 words to absolutely race through even the basics of the Court of Protection, without even getting into the nuts and bolts of this case, so one can see why they end up saying “A secret Court” and leave it at that. Perhaps in future, this piece might be a handy link or source for anyone who wants to understand the basics of how that secret court is meant to operate.
I in no sense think that the Court of Protection is flawless or perfect, and it is perfectly possible for very bad decisions to be made, but at least understanding the nuts and bolts of the fact that decisions are made by a Judge, with a lot of tests and guidance might help people avoid some of the more dreadful factual errors that came about with some of the recent reporting. Otherwise you end up endlessly debating the rights and wrongs of a set of abhorrent things that DIDN’T actually happen, as opposed to very real and important rights and wrongs of a set of very troubling things that DID.
[It is like determining US and UK foreign policy post 9-11 based on Kay Burley's account on Sky News on the day that "The entire Eastern Seaboard of the United States has been decimated by terrorist attacks" rather than what actually happened, which was awful and significant enough without lurid inaccuracies *]
What is the Court of Protection, and is is a secret court?
The Court of Protection is a branch of the English and Welsh court system, dealing with cases involving people who either do not have capacity to make decisions about certain things for themselves, or to determine whether in fact they do have that capacity. The Court of Protection was set up by the Mental Capacity Act 2005. It is not open to the public. The Press have to make an application if they want to attend the hearing. Some decisions of the Court of Protection (judgments) are made public on law sites like Bailii
if they contain important points of law or principles which might apply to other cases or are in the public interest, but the day to day decisions are not made public (yet – the President of the Family Division has indicated that he intends to bring about publication as a matter of course of all decisions of the family courts and probably the Court of Protection too). When those decisions are made public, the identity of the person concerned is usually anonymised. (There are certain, though rare cases, where the identity is revealed, such as the Mark Nearey case http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/mark-neary-they-didnt-understand-steven-they-saw-me-as-a-fly-in-the-ointment-2295565.html )
So the Court of Protection is certainly secretive – there are arguments that this is done to protect the vulnerable people concerned, but the President of the Family Division takes the view that the counter argument that without exposing their decisions to public scrutiny there’s a risk that the public lose confidence in the work they do and that hyperbolae is taken as gospel (he would seem, from events this week, to be right) and it is almost irresistable now that judgments from the Court of Protection will be made routinely available, and probably that the Press attendance at Court of Protection hearings will become the default position (with the Court having to given reasons why they SHOULDN’T be there)
Why did the Court of Protection come about?
It was introduced by the UK Parliament as a result of a case that went to the European Court of Human Rights, involving a man who is known as “L” (the case is also well known as the “Bournwood” case, after the Trust involved). L had been a day patient at a centre, and lived normally with a family. He did not have capacity to make decisions for himself, but was not mentally ill or dangerous. One day he had an episode at the centre and when his family came to collect him, they were told that he had to stay at the centre. Now, if L had been detained under the Mental Health Act, his family would have had all sorts of legal safeguards and abilities to challenge his detention. Equally, if L had had the capacity to say to the unit “I want to go home” they would have had to let him, but L fell between these two situations, and there was no proper mechanism. Many commenters and professionals working with vulnerable adults felt that it was inherently wrong that someone like L could be detained for months or years with no legal safeguards, just because he wasn’t in a position to object. The ECHR agreed.
At the same time, Parliament brought into one statute, legal provisions for some decisions that the High Court had historically made under their Inherent Jurisdiction (Inherent Jurisdiction would require a whole other beginners guide, but if you just read Inherent Jurisdiction as “High Court superpowers” you won’t go far wrong) – for example deciding whether doctors could carry out surgery on a patient who was refusing it, dealing with marriages where people had no ability to understand the marriage vows, protecting the finances of vulnerable people, and wrapped it all up into one statute.
The thinking was to give protection and safeguards for the most vulnerable people in society, those who are not able to look out for their own interests. (Many commenters believe that the MCA began with those noble intentions but hasn’t in practice delivered on them)
Who brings cases to the Court of Protection ?
The cases are normally brought by one of these four groups (though others are possible) : - the health trust whose doctors are treating the person, the care home who is providing care for the person, the Local Authority who are providing services for the person, or on behalf of the person or their family.
How does the Court decide whether a person has capacity?
The Mental Capacity Act sets out a test as to the REASON why the person lacks capacity
(1)For the purposes of this Act, a person lacks capacity in relation to a matter if at the material time he is unable to make a decision for himself in relation to the matter because of an impairment of, or a disturbance in the functioning of, the mind or brain.
(2)It does not matter whether the impairment or disturbance is permanent or temporary.
And then sets out a test for deciding WHETHER a person lacks capacity
Section 3 Inability to make decisions
(1)For the purposes of section 2, a person is unable to make a decision for himself if he is unable—
(a)to understand the information relevant to the decision,
(b)to retain that information,
(c)to use or weigh that information as part of the process of making the decision, or
(d)to communicate his decision (whether by talking, using sign language or any other means).
(2)A person is not to be regarded as unable to understand the information relevant to a decision if he is able to understand an explanation of it given to him in a way that is appropriate to his circumstances (using simple language, visual aids or any other means).
(3)The fact that a person is able to retain the information relevant to a decision for a short period only does not prevent him from being regarded as able to make the decision.
(4)The information relevant to a decision includes information about the reasonably foreseeable consequences of—
(a)deciding one way or another, or
(b)failing to make the decision.
It is VERY VERY important to note that a person is entitled in law to make a bad decision, an unwise decision, a daft decision, a decision that no other person would take; AS LONG as they understand the situation they are making the decision about. (For example, Carla out of Corrie is entitled to marry Peter Barlow even though he is a love-rat with a history of bigamy, an alcoholic and is trying it on with Tina from the Rovers, even though many people would think she was foolish to do so. But if she does not understand that marriage is the union of one man and one woman (currently) and is intended to be for life although it can be ended through divorce, then she can’t marry him. Just as, if he drinks and is so intoxicated that he can’t understand that, he can’t legally enter into a marriage contract – but that is PRETTY drunk)
It is also important to note that just because a person lacks capacity to make one particular decision, it doesn’t mean that they lack capacity to make any sort of decision. Some decisions are more complicated to weigh up than others and need more capacity to understand. Over a period of time, the Court of Protection has decided cases and set up guidelines for what sort of understanding a person has to have for certain decisions.
For example, classically, in order for a person to have the capacity to consent to sexual intercourse they have to be able to understand the following three things :-
(i) The physical mechanical act
(ii) That pregnancy can occur and what pregnancy is (and contraception)
(iii) that you can get diseases through sex (and how to avoid that)
The person doesn’t have to understand the emotional implications (that you could get heart-broken or sad, or that the other person might) or be able to weigh up who is a good person to have sex with and who is not, just those three factors. (For homosexual sex, the second factor is taken out)
You will see from the legal test that the person has to be helped, with explanations suitable for them, to reach the point of understanding the issues so that they can make the decision for themselves. The law WANTS people to make the decision for themselves, and it is also worth noting that the starting point is that every person HAS capacity unless evidence is provided to the contrary.
If the Court decide that a person lacks capacity, what then?
The Court then have to make what is called a “best interests” decision. That means deciding what is in the best interests of the person. That might be what the State (the doctors or social workers) say is best, it might be what the person themselves is saying or showing that they want, or it might be something else entirely.
The legal test is set out in the Mental Capacity Act
section 4 Best interests
(1)In determining for the purposes of this Act what is in a person’s best interests, the person making the determination must not make it merely on the basis of—
(a)the person’s age or appearance, or
(b)a condition of his, or an aspect of his behaviour, which might lead others to make unjustified assumptions about what might be in his best interests.
(2)The person making the determination must consider all the relevant circumstances and, in particular, take the following steps.
(3)He must consider—
(a)whether it is likely that the person will at some time have capacity in relation to the matter in question, and
(b)if it appears likely that he will, when that is likely to be.
(4)He must, so far as reasonably practicable, permit and encourage the person to participate, or to improve his ability to participate, as fully as possible in any act done for him and any decision affecting him.
(5)Where the determination relates to life-sustaining treatment he must not, in considering whether the treatment is in the best interests of the person concerned, be motivated by a desire to bring about his death.
(6)He must consider, so far as is reasonably ascertainable—
(a)the person’s past and present wishes and feelings (and, in particular, any relevant written statement made by him when he had capacity),
(b)the beliefs and values that would be likely to influence his decision if he had capacity, and
(c)the other factors that he would be likely to consider if he were able to do so.
(7)He must take into account, if it is practicable and appropriate to consult them, the views of—
(a)anyone named by the person as someone to be consulted on the matter in question or on matters of that kind,
(b)anyone engaged in caring for the person or interested in his welfare,
(c)any donee of a lasting power of attorney granted by the person, and
(d)any deputy appointed for the person by the court,
as to what would be in the person’s best interests and, in particular, as to the matters mentioned in subsection (6).
(8)The duties imposed by subsections (1) to (7) also apply in relation to the exercise of any powers which—
(a)are exercisable under a lasting power of attorney, or
(b)are exercisable by a person under this Act where he reasonably believes that another person lacks capacity.
(9)In the case of an act done, or a decision made, by a person other than the court, there is sufficient compliance with this section if (having complied with the requirements of subsections (1) to (7)) he reasonably believes that what he does or decides is in the best interests of the person concerned.
(10)“Life-sustaining treatment” means treatment which in the view of a person providing health care for the person concerned is necessary to sustain life.
(11)“Relevant circumstances” are those—
(a)of which the person making the determination is aware, and
(b)which it would be reasonable to regard as relevant.
You can see that the Court are obliged to consider and take into account all that is known about what the person themselves wants, or would want, or has previously expressed about wanting (remember that a person might only temporarily lack capacity, so the Court have to take account of anything the person said or showed about the issue in the past), and also has to take into account the views of anyone who cares for the person or is interested in their welfare.
This is the difficult bit, and in most Court of Protection cases, the majority of the judgment is spent on the Judge deciding what is in the ‘best interests’ of the patient to do. Sometimes that accords with what the patient is saying or showing they want, sometimes it does not. It is the hardest part of the exercise, and to an extent, I agree with Lucy Series from The Small Places blog about capacity and mental health :-
“ A recently ratified UN treaty – the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – poses the question: why should people with disabilities and mental illnesses face these kinds of interventions when people without do not? It looks very much as if the Mental Capacity Act itself is not compatible with this Convention, although views on this differ. It is certainly a question it would be good to see the media asking more often… Again, this is an issue that comes up a lot around the Mental Capacity Act 2005: how can we distinguish decisions which are merely irrational or unwise, which everybody is entitled to make, from those which are incapable. This is actually quite a profound philosophical problem (my own view is that it is insoluble; ‘mental incapacity’ is a conceptual device which we cling onto to mask the value judgments we are bringing to bear when justifying interventions in situations which we regard as intolerable). The disability Convention referred to above poses serious questions about how we deal with ‘capacity’, and emphasises the role of support for decision making. Even the Mental Capacity Act requires support to be provided for a person to make their own decision before it is made on their behalf, and decisions made on their behalf should involve the person as far as possible. “
How does the Court ensure that it is making the decision that is right for the person, and not the decision that “seems” the right thing to do from a paternalistic “The State knows best” approach. The Court of Protection at essence is a referee between the tension of “the State needs to decide what is best for vulnerable people” and “people should be free of State interference and make their own decisions”. It is not easy, and it can seem to those outside that the Court of Protection doesn’t always get things right.
It is certainly a new system (in terms of law, 8 years of operation is a baby) and it would be astonishing if mistakes weren’t being made and lessons were there to be learned. So it is important to scrutinise the decisions and for the Court of Protection to be responsive and reflective to changes both in law and attitudes in society. Twenty years ago, a man saying that he intended to marry another man would have seemed peculiar to most of society, now a Conservative Prime Minister is driving that change.
But, if a person doesn’t have capacity to make a decision, how do they fight the case?
Well, this is the million dollar question. Remember firstly that just because a person lacks capacity to make one decision doesn’t mean that they lack capacity to make all decisions. So it is possible for a person to be able to instruct his lawyers to fight the case, whilst the Court decides on the real issue in question. But very often the issue of capacity will also affect the person’s capacity to instruct a solicitor. There is firm guidance on the legal test to be able to instruct a solicitor, and where a person doesn’t meet that test, they can’t give instructions directly to a solicitor.
[A person who HAS capacity is able to tell their solicitor to do something really foolish or unwise or downright dumb - i.e Carla can tell her solicitor to put all of her assets in Peter Barlow's sole name and to sign a pre-nup saying that she has no claim on any of what is now his property. That's stupid, but if she understands the nature of what she is doing, she can do it.]
What happens ordinarily then is that an agency known as the Official Solicitor is appointed by the Court (not by the social worker or Trust, as certain national newspapers seem to think) and the Official Solicitor will decide how the case is to be run on the persons behalf – that might be to fight the case every inch of the way, it might be to offer no resistance, it might be to be neutral and say that the doctors or social workers have to prove their case, or it might be that some parts of the case are challenged very hard and others aren’t. It is up to the Official Solicitor)
Now, one can see where that causes a problem. The person lacks capacity, say, to make an informed decision that if surgeons don’t cut off their foot they will die of gangrene, but is very vocally saying “Don’t cut off my foot, I would rather die”. The doctors will be able to tell their lawyers to argue all the reasons why the surgery will happen. The Judge knows what the person is saying and has to take it into account. But there could very well be no lawyer who actually argues to the Court all of the reasons why the surgery SHOULDN’T happen, they will only do that if the Official Solicitor decides that it is in the person’s best interests to fight the case.
(You may see that you end up with both the Official Solicitor and the Court making decisions about what each of them CONCLUDES is in the person’s best interests to do and that can appear to be a blurring of roles. When a lawyer acts for someone who has capacity, she gives them ADVICE about what is in their best interests, often very strong advice, but where a person says “I hear all that, but I still want to do X instead” that lawyer goes into Court and argues fearlessly and without favour for X. You end up with, here, a situation where the most vulnerable people in society get less protection from the lawyer charged with representing them, than they would if they had capacity)
If you want to know more about the decision of the Court of Protection in ceasarean section cases, I heartily recommend this piece , which focuses on the legal side and the tests to be met
and this piece
Which looks at it from the perspective of the pregnant mother
* She actually did say that. And what better reason do I need to crowbar in a “Who said this, Kay Burley or Ron Burgundy” quiz?
Stay classy, internet