Inherent jurisdiction and vulnerable (yet competent adults)
DL v A Local Authority and Others  EWCA Civ 253
A fascinating case, and one which deserves to be analysed by someone with greater skill and expertise in adult social care law than I possess. But I am interested in it, and felt it was worthy of discussion.
It deals fundamentally, with the tension between individual autonomy and protection of vulnerable persons; and of whether there is a bright line to be drawn between when the State can tell a person that they can’t make that decision because it is not in their best interests to do so, and where if so, that bright line is to be drawn.
Many people might have thought that the introduction of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 settled that once and for all :- the State, and ergo the Court, can replace a person’s decision with one that is in their best interests if, and only if:-
(i) they are a minor, when the principles of the Children Act 1989 apply
(ii) they are suffering from a mental illness or disorder sufficient to justify intervention under the Mental Health Act
(iii) they lack capacity to make that decision, when the principles of the Mental Capacity Act apply.
But nothing much in law is settled “once and for all” (with the honourable exception perhaps of precisely what words one can or cannot use when advertising carbolic smoke balls)
And the Court of Appeal have been grappling with the issue of whether a person who has capacity, is not a child, is not mentally disordered but is nonetheless “vulnerable” can have their autonomy restricted by use of the inherent jurisdiction of the Court.
The facts of the case are relatively straightforward, and I’ll quote them from the judgment (the bolding is mine) :-
- For the purposes of the determination of the legal point the parties have helpfully agreed a set of “assumed facts” which formed the basis of the case before Mrs Justice Theis and before this court. I set them out below in full but in doing so make it clear that these assumed facts are not agreed by DL as being true and are, in fact, in the main denied by him.
“Mr and Mrs L are an elderly married couple. He is 85: she is 90. They live with their son, DL, (who is in his fifties) in a house which is owned by Mr. L. Mrs L is physically disabled. She receives support by way of direct payments and twice daily visits from health and social care professionals commissioned and paid for by the Claimant local authority under its statutory community care duties. At the time that these proceedings were commenced, the local authority accepts, for the purpose of this hearing, that neither Mr nor Mrs L (nor, for that matter, DL) was incapable, by reason of any impairment of or disturbance in the functioning of the mind or brain, of managing their own affairs, and, in particular, both Mr and Mrs L appeared capable of deciding what their relationship with their son should be and, in particular, whether he should continue to live under the same roof as themselves.
Mr L has, however, been recently assessed as lacking capacity to make his own decisions and a decision is soon to be reached whether he has requisite capacity to litigate. Mr. L is no longer residing at the family home and it is not known if or when he will return to the family home. Nevertheless the need to resolve the preliminary issue remains and for that purpose it is assumed that both ML and GRL have capacity as to residence and contact with DL for the purposes of s 2 of the Mental Capacity Act 2005.
The local authority is concerned about DL’s alleged conduct towards his parents, which is said to be aggressive, and which, on occasions, has resulted, it is said, in physical violence by DL towards his parents. The local authority has documented incidents going back to 2005 which, it says, chronicle DL’s behaviour and which include physical assaults, verbal threats, controlling where and when his parents may move in the house, preventing them from leaving the house, and controlling who may visit them, and the terms upon which they may visit them, including health and social care professionals providing care and support for Mrs L. There have also been consistent reports that DL is seeking to coerce Mr L into transferring the ownership of the house into DL’s name and that he has also placed considerable pressure on both his parents to have Mrs L moved into a care home against her wishes.
The local authority has brought these proceedings to protect Mr and Mrs. L from DL. It has considered (and rejected) using the criminal law. It has considered (and rejected) an application to the Court of Protection under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 (MCA 2005). It has considered (and rejected) an application for an ASBO (an anti-social behaviour order) under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. It has considered (and rejected) an application under section 153A of the Housing Act 1996.
The local authority acknowledges that, on the information currently available to it, neither Mr nor Mrs. L lacks the capacity to take proceedings on behalf of themselves or each other by reason of any impairment of or disturbance in the functioning of the mind or brain. The local authority recognises that Mrs L, in particular, wishes to preserve her relationship with DL and does not want any proceedings taken against him. Furthermore, the local authority acknowledges that whilst Mr. L is more critical of DL’s behaviour, it remains unclear as to whether he, Mr L, would wish to take steps in opposition to his wife’s wishes.
When this case came before Lord Justice Wall in October 2010, he made injunctions under the Inherent Jurisdiction to safeguard Mr and Mrs L from the alleged domestic abuse from their son; notwithstanding that they did not apply for such an order and did not want that protection and were happy for their son to live with them.
Whether you think that is right or not, depends largely on where you stand on the personal autonomy versus protection of the vulnerable debate.
The legal issue for the Court of Appeal was framed in admirably concise prose by Mrs Justice Theis :-
“The central issue in this case is whether, and to what extent, the court’s inherent jurisdiction is available to make declarations and, if necessary, put protective measures in place in relation to vulnerable adults who do not fall within the MCA but who are, or are reasonably believed to be, for some reason deprived of the capacity to make the relevant decision, or disabled from making a free choice, or incapacitated or disabled from giving or expressing a real and genuine consent by reason of such things as constraint, coercion, undue influence or other vitiating factor.”
The hearing in the Court of Appeal makes for interesting reading and some very strong arguments were marshalled on both sides.
For the appellant, DL, represented by Ms Nathalie Lieven QC (someone I am sadly not familiar with, but without any doubt on reading this, a considerable force to be reckoned with and a piercing mind) :-
- The principal arguments deployed by Miss Lieven in this court can be summarised as follows:
a) The only authority prior to the introduction of the MCA 2005 which indicated that the inherent jurisdiction extended to adults who maintained their mental capacity is limited to one case, namely Re SA. Re SA was not supported by any earlier authority and is therefore to be seen as an isolated decision which is insufficient to bear the weight now put upon it by subsequent decisions, including that of Theis J in this case;
b) The MCA 2005 was clearly intended to provide a comprehensive statutory code for those who lacked capacity;
c) If a case, such as the present, does not fall within the provisions of the MCA 2005, then there is no jurisdiction for the court to make orders controlling the lives of those who do not lack capacity within the meaning of the 2005 Act;
d) To the degree that there is any remaining inherent jurisdiction in this field, it is limited to providing a short period for the individual to be allowed to make his/her own decision, and if appropriate the provision of advice.
- In developing her submissions Miss Lieven understandably stressed the premium which the courts have habitually attached to the right of autonomy enjoyed by every individual in a democratic society. She relied upon the words of Lord Reid in S v McC: W v W  AC 25:
“English law goes to great lengths to protect a person of full age and capacity from interference with his personal liberty. We have too often seen freedom disappear in other countries not only by coups d’état but by gradual erosion: and often it is the first step that counts. So it would be unwise to make even minor concessions.”
[From my own distorted and unreasonable perspective, if you don’t feel even a tiny urge to stand up and applaud when reading Lord Reid’s words, I would raise an eyebrow at your decision. Were the world ever to lose all reason and appoint me to the higher echelons of the judiciary, deployment of that quotation in a relevant context would be a “Win the Game button”]
The difficulty for that case, as is obliquely noted in the Court of Appeal decision, is that it invites the Court of Appeal to conclude that Judges can’t be trusted to exercise powers with restraint and a great deal of caution, and they call upon a number of examples where such restraint and caution has been deployed to the advantage of the vulnerable.
And for the Local Authority respondent, represented by Paul Bowen (I note that in this case, both parties had what might be described as ‘thankless briefs’ – one of them trying to justify the Local Authority’s right to interfere in the lives of people who had capacity to make their own decisions, even if those decisions might appear wrong to others, and the other trying to justify that even if the Court felt these adults were vulnerable and needed protection, the letter of the law forebade it)
- The appeal is opposed by Mr Paul Bowen on behalf of the local authority. He submits that the appeal is based on the false premise that the inherent jurisdiction argued for would permit the court to override the decision of any competent adult and thereby ignore their fundamental right to autonomy. Mr Bowen submits that the case is far more narrowly based than that and is limited to those individuals who fall outside the MCA 2005 but who nevertheless have not given, or cannot give, a ‘true consent’ to a particular aspect of their lives not as a result of mental incapacity but for some other reason, such as the undue influence of a third party. Mr Bowen’s submissions have therefore been to delineate the extent of the jurisdiction so that it only covers those cases where it is necessary for the court to act because a person’s capacity to make decisions for themselves has been overborne by circumstances other than those covered by the MCA 2005.
- Mr Bowen has the substantial benefit of being able to rely upon the analysis and conclusions of Munby J in Re SA and, understandably, much of his argument was designed to highlight and support those matters. In addition he drew attention to the fact that Parliament was expressly aware of the concept of ‘elder abuse’ during the pre-legislative scrutiny process. The MCA 2005 makes no express provision limiting or extinguishing the use of the inherent jurisdiction. Mr Bowen therefore submits that Parliament can be taken as intending that in so far as the inherent jurisdiction may cover matters outside the 2005 Act, then the legislation leaves that jurisdiction untouched to develop under the common law as it had done prior to 2005.
If you have read carefully so far, you will not be surprised that faced with deciding that Munby J and Theis J and Wall J are wrong and that Judges ought not to be trusted with the power to use the inherent jurisdiction to protect vulnerable adults, or deciding the opposite, the Court decided the opposite.
- I do not accept that the jurisdiction described by the learned judge is extensive and all-encompassing, or one which may threaten the autonomy of every adult in the country. It is, as Mr Bowen submits and as the judgments of Munby J and Theis J demonstrate, targeted solely at those adults whose ability to make decisions for themselves has been compromised by matters other than those covered by the MCA 2005. I, like Munby J before me in Re SA, am determined not to offer a definition so as to limit or constrict the group of ‘vulnerable adults’ for whose benefit this jurisdiction may be deployed. I have already quoted paragraphs 76 and 77 from the judgment of Munby J (see paragraph 22 above). I am entirely in agreement with the description of the jurisdiction that is given there.
- The appellant’s submissions rightly place a premium upon an individual’s autonomy to make his own decisions. However this point, rather than being one against the existence of the inherent jurisdiction in these cases, is in my view a strong argument in favour of it. The jurisdiction, as described by Munby J and as applied by Theis J in this case, is in part aimed at enhancing or liberating the autonomy of a vulnerable adult whose autonomy has been compromised by a reason other than mental incapacity because they are (to adopt the list in paragraph 77 of Re SA):
a) Under constraint; or
b) Subject to coercion or undue influence; or
c) For some other reason deprived of the capacity to make the relevant decision or disabled from making a free choice, or incapacitated or disabled from giving or expressing a real and genuine consent.
- I do not regard the Re SA decision as a one off determination, which is unsupported by earlier authority and not to be followed. As Munby J demonstrates in his thorough review of the earlier case law, the organic development of the inherent jurisdiction, following its rediscovery by the House of Lords in Re F (Mental Patient: Sterilisation)  2 AC 1, had lead to decisions, particularly those of Re T and Re G (above), which moved away from cases where the individuals plainly lacked mental capacity to take a particular decision themselves. The fact that the subject matter of the cases related to medical treatment, rather than some other class of decision, cannot affect the principle; either the jurisdiction exists or it does not. The question of the class of decision to which any orders are directed will be a matter of application of the jurisdiction, and of proportionality, dependent on the facts of any given case.
- In the same manner, the argument that in the Westminster case the court was concerned with a type of relief (preventing removal from the jurisdiction) which is not catered for in the MCA 2005 and therefore the existence of the inherent jurisdiction to supplement the statutory scheme is acceptable, in contrast to the present case, simply does not stand scrutiny. Either the inherent jurisdiction is there to act as a safety net for matters outside the Act or it is not. The fact that Thorpe LJ and Wall LJ were so firmly of the view that the jurisdiction had survived the implementation of the 2005 Act is a powerful indicator that the Appellant’s argument is wrong.
- My conclusion that the inherent jurisdiction remains available for use in cases to which it may apply that fall outside the MCA 2005 is not merely arrived at on the negative basis that the words of the statute are self-limiting and there is no reference within it to the inherent jurisdiction. There is, in my view, a sound and strong public policy justification for this to be so. The existence of ‘elder abuse’, as described by Professor Williams, is sadly all too easy to contemplate. Indeed the use of the term ‘elder’ in that label may inadvertently limit it to a particular age group whereas, as the cases demonstrate, the will of a vulnerable adult of any age may, in certain circumstances, be overborne. Where the facts justify it, such individuals require and deserve the protection of the authorities and the law so that they may regain the very autonomy that the appellant rightly prizes. The young woman in Re G (above) who would, as Bennett J described, lose her mental capacity if she were once again exposed to the unbridled and adverse influence of her father is a striking example of precisely this point.
- For the reasons given by Munby J at paragraph 77 and elsewhere in Re SA, it is not easy to define and delineate this group of vulnerable adults, as, in contrast, it is when the yardstick of vulnerability relates to an impairment or disturbance in the functioning of the mind or brain. Nor is it wise or helpful to place a finite limit on those who may, or may not, attract the court’s protection in this regard. The establishment of a statutory scheme to bring the cases in this hinterland before the Court of Protection would (as Professor Williams described) represent an almost impossible task, whereas the ability of the common law to develop and adapt its jurisdiction, on a case by case basis, as may be required, may meet this need more readily.
And this bit is particularly important, as the Appellant’s fallback position was that if the inherent jurisdiction could be used, it should ONLY be for a short period, to allow the vulnerable person a period of time for reflection (and where appropriate to seek their own independent legal advice) – this was rejected.
68. It follows that, despite the clarity and skill with which it has been argued, I have no hesitation in dismissing the appellant’s primary grounds of appeal and upholding the decision of Theis J in this case. Although argued as a separate, fall back, ground, it must follow from my unreserved endorsement of the full jurisdiction described by Munby J in Re: SA and applied subsequently in a number of cases at first instance that I reject the idea that, if it exists, the exercise of the inherent jurisdiction in these cases is limited to providing interim relief designed to permit the vulnerable individual the ‘space’ to make decisions for themselves, removed from any alleged source of undue influence. Whilst such interim provision may be of benefit in any given case, it does not represent the totality of the High Court’s inherent powers.
In the second judgment, Lord Justice Davies is able to express matters pithily (perhaps as Lord Justice MacFarlane had done all of the heavy lifting in his seventy paragraphs of judgment)
76. Miss Lieven stressed the importance of personal autonomy. She expressed concern to the effect that the retention of the inherent jurisdiction might for the future be resorted to by public authorities, pursuing a “Big Brother” agenda, with a view to ensuring that adults make decisions which conform to an acceptable, state decided, norm (I put it in my words, not hers). I acknowledge the point but do not share the concern. It is, of course, of the essence of humanity that adults are entitled to be eccentric, entitled to be unorthodox, entitled to be obstinate, entitled to be irrational. Many are. But the decided authorities show that there can be no power of public intervention simply because an adult proposes to make a decision, or to tolerate a state if affairs, which most would consider neither wise nor sensible. There has to be much more than simply that for any intervention to be justified: and any such intervention will indeed need to be justified as necessary and proportionate. I am sure local authorities, as much as the courts, appreciate that. It is at all events neither possible nor appropriate exhaustively to define “vulnerability” for this purpose. Cases which are close to the line can safely be left to be dealt with under the inherent jurisdiction by the judges of the Family Division on the particular facts and circumstances arising in each instance.
What is not clear is whether these powers will be used sparingly – I recall Wall LJs injunctions being reported in the mainstream press, but they don’t seem to have opened the floodgates to lots of these applications.
And what there is not, as yet, is any decision implying that a Local Authority would have a duty to use these powers to apply to the High Court for orders in the inherent jurisdiction and under what circumstances – reading the clear need for flexibility and not circumscribing the precise situation in which the powers should be used, I rather think that there will not be a decision that sets out the Local Authority’s duty to make such applications.