The decision of the Court of Protection in Re A Local Authority v WMA 2013
This is not, I think, a development in the law, but it is a recent decision by the Court of Protection which authorised the removal of a vulnerable adult WMA from his home, authorised the LA to go into his home and remove him, authorised him to be placed somewhere he didn’t want to go, authorised a deprivation of his liberty and authorised if necessary the police to go into his home and remove WMA, all on the basis that this was in his best interests, WMA lacking capacity to make such decisions for himself. It therefore raises interesting talking points.
What orders are necessary? I find that these are: a power for the local authority to enter the home if necessary; a power to the police to restrain WMA if necessary; an order that WMA be removed from his current home and taken to B where the local authority will have power to retain him if needs be; and the local authority will have the power, of course, in addition, to sign the tenancy agreement on his behalf. These measures are proportionate and necessary.
As such, it is a powerful reminder of the powers that the Court of Protection have; the impact such powers can have on vulnerable individuals and additionally a useful summary of the factors to be balanced and tests to be applied.
I have to say that my own take on the case (which is not that important, but I’ll give it) is that I felt WMA’s wishes were somewhat marginalised and that the case was substantially more finely balanced than it might appear from reading the judgment. I probably would have authorised WMA’s removal, if all efforts to improve things for him at home had failed, but I would have found it more difficult to do so.
- The case concerns the future of a twenty five year old man, WMA, and where he should live plus what help should be given to him. It raises complex issues about best interests and deprivation of liberty.
- WMA suffers from an autistic spectrum disorder. Although it is possible to have a conversation with him about his clearly expressed views, it is plain, and agreed by even his mother MA, that he lacks capacity in some important aspects to which I shall come. He has been diagnosed in these proceedings as having atypical autism and a pervasive development disorder. He presents with unpredictable behaviour on occasion.
- He leads an isolated and insular life with MA, who has also sight and mobility problems of her own. The local authority is concerned about the impact of isolation on WMA’s long term development and its social work team has reluctantly come to the conclusion that he needs to be moved into supported living accommodation, despite the difficulty of the initial move, because in the long term this will help WMA and MA to develop a more healthy relationship. It is argued that there is currently an unhealthy degree of interdependence. The local authority alleges too that MA is unable to care for WMA properly, she is likely to be harming his development and it is against his best interests to remain with her.
Part of the problem in the case was that although WMA wanted to be with his mother, MA; professionals felt that MA was (a) holding him back and impairing the progress and development that he could make and (b) not able to actually care for him, to the point where the home conditions were described as both ‘squalid’ and the sort of home conditions that would lead a child to be removed for neglect. MA did herself no favours by the way she participated in the hearing, one has to say.
The LA put the case like this
- 67. “It is my professional view that WMA is a twenty three year old man with the potential to lead a more fulfilling life. I am also of the view that MA is not deliberately abusive to him but rather has needs of her own that have not been assessed but which impact upon her ability to care for WMA effectively and to manage her own living environment. I think she is not aware that her behaviour towards him is abusive. She has little expectations of him and there is evidence of the frustration she experiences from undertaking his care, shouting at him, preventing him from leaving the property. MA has stated on many occasions she does not want local authority involvement with the family, blaming them for the lack of diagnosis of WMA as a child. She has been found to be neglectful through safeguarding adults procedures. I am concerned that WMA has been treated in an inhumane and degrading manner by MA and that his true potential has been unrecognised and stifled. In order for him to live safely and towards a more fulfilling life I think he should move on to supported accommodation whilst continuing to have contact with his mother.”
The first issue in the case, where WMA had capacity to make decisions for himself, was fairly straightforward. (I did note with some surprise that WMA’s IQ was assessed at being 64, rather higher than one might have believed reading some of the descriptions of him, but of course with autistic spectrum disorder IQ itself isn’t the only measure of capacity)
- WMA’s significantly learning disability as a result of his autism meet the criteria of section 2 for he has an impairment of functioning of the mind or brain. Dr. Carpenter has made this quite clear. Even MA has doubts as to his capacity and considers him less capable than others of achieving in this life.
- In addition, WMA clearly meets the functional tests in section 3. He cannot use all relevant information relevant to a decision as part of the process of making a decision. This test is decision specific but I am satisfied that WMA cannot make decisions as to his residence, his care plan and his contact with his mother. Of course, WMA has sufficient capacity to decide what he wants to eat but he cannot cope with concepts or make sensible plans as to where to live. In addition, he cannot cope with or even contemplate change, save with assistance.
- This, too, is confirmed by Dr. Carpenter who made it clear to me that this is not a borderline case as to capacity. He counselled against believing that WMA has near capacity simply because of his verbal abilities. That view of the functional test was echoed in the evidence of Mr. McKinstrie, the independent social worker, and the views of the social workers who gave evidence.
- Accordingly, I have concluded WMA cannot use or weigh the factors as to where he should live. His view that he should remain living with his mother is a decision he is incapable of making. He cannot weigh up all the considerations. Alongside that fundamental issue he cannot decide what care package is suitable for him or, indeed, what contact if away from MA he should have with her.
Having established that WMA lacked capacity, the Court then had to go on to consider what was in his best interests, taking into account all of the factors set out in the Mental Capacity Act 2005.
The Court made the following factual findings
- I make the following findings.
- First, the local authority social workers have been unable and will be unable to provide appropriate care for WMA and monitor it because of his refusal to accept it and because of MA’s inconsistence and erratic interference with the local authority help.
- Second, there is a worrying history about MA’s care for WMA that shows no sign of abating.
- Third, that the local authority has made special efforts over the last eighteen months to engage fully with both of them but there has been an unacceptable degree of conflict. I am not persuaded the local authority could have done any more and I have noted with concern the helpful evidence of CG that she has felt under threat recently.
- Fourthly, WMA lives an isolated lifestyle and is expected often to be in mother’s eyes and ears. His relationship with her, however, is a frustrated one and there is clear evidence on mother’s case alone that he is, at times, beyond control.
- Fifthly, the isolation is such that WMA just does not go out with any with any regularity. Dog walking and shopping appear to be virtually the limit of his outdoor activities with the exception of the few outings that were organised by Delos who he now rejects. As long ago as February 2012 he could not recall when he last went out anywhere.
- Sixthly, the home of MA and WMA continues to be kept to a very low standard of cleanliness and, whilst it is not for the court to impose respectable middle class standards of care, nonetheless, the home’s condition has on occasion deteriorated. The recent evidence of CG, for example, that the fridge is kept to a low standard of cleanliness is very concerning. True enough, this has not yet made WMA ill but I am sure that it will one day,
- Seventhly, there is a plain history of neglect of WMA by his mother. She does not keep him sufficiently safe or clean or his clothes sufficiently clean to an acceptable standard. The clear point is that MA’s standards are not simply lower than the norm, they are below a good enough standard.
It is important to note that the ‘safeguarding concerns’ were not the test – they were a factor to be weighed in the best interests decision, but it was not a simple matter, as the Official Solicitor suggested the LA had put it of safeguarding concerns being the focus of the Court. The Official Solicitor also raised on behalf of WMA that the case might well be social engineering. It was not right to move WMA simply because he might DO BETTER in a setting away from his mother (this is a well-established principle in care proceedings), it had to be a decision taken in the round, for his best interests.
There was an interesting debate about what the starting-point is in such cases (i.e does one START with the position that WMA ought to be at home where he wants to be, or START with a blank sheet of paper? In care proceedings, of course, the Court STARTS with the proposition that it is better for a child to be at home with his parents and has to have compelling evidence to move away from that proposition)
Not so in Court of Protection cases.
- I quote from another part of the K v LBX case  EWCA (Civ) 79 not cited by Mr. O’Brien. In discussing whether or not the court would start from placing the person concerned with their family, Black LJ said this:
“A prescribed starting point risks deflecting the decision maker’s attention from one aspect of Article 8, private life, by focusing his attention on another, family life. In its wider form incorporating reference to both private and family life, there is a danger it contains within it an inherent conflict for elements of private life, such as the right to personal development and the right to establish relationships with other human beings in the outside world may not always be entirely compatible with the existing family life in the sense of continuing to live within the existing family home.”
It is a difficult tension here – once a person lacks capacity, there is no “Threshold criteria” no test of harm that has to be crossed by the State to justify their removal from their family home; the Court just has to consider whether it would be in WMA’s best interests to be so moved.
Of course, the law is intended to protect vulnerable people who prior to the MCA 2005 would have been left alone to live in squalid conditions with their needs not being met unless the person met the criteria under the Mental Health Act for detention or Guardianship (or the little-used powers under community care legislation)
National Assistance Act 1948
s47 Removal to suitable premises of persons in need of care and attention.
(1)The following provisions of this section shall have effect for the purposes of securing the necessary care and attention for persons who—
(a)are suffering from grave chronic disease or, being aged, infirm or physically incapacitated, are living in insanitary conditions, and
(b)are unable to devote to themselves, and are not receiving from other persons, proper care and attention.
Which made provision for an application to be made to Court and an order authorising the removal. I’m not sure how often that was ever used, but one can see that there is something of a test in there (and a pretty high one), rather than the generic principle now that a person lacking capacity can be removed from their family if the Court of Protection consider it is in their best interests.
There are no police powers to remove a vulnerable adult from a home where they are felt to be at risk, and the criminal offence of neglecting a vulnerable adult whom you are caring for only came about with s44 of the Mental Capacity Act 2005.
On the other hand, this leaves a vulnerable group of adults, those lacking capacity, as being those for whom the Court of Protection can make wide-ranging decisions about what is in their best interests. One hopes, of course, that the Court of Protection makes what one would objectively consider to be in the best interests of the vulnerable adult, but there is this obvious tension between what the State might consider to be in the best interests of the adult, and what the adult and their friends and family might consider to be in the adults best interests.
The Mental Capacity Act of course came about to fill a gap in the law, the “Bournewood gap” where a person who lacked capacity to declare that they wanted to leave a residential unit ended up remaining there with his carers being unable to challenge that decision or remove him, and the case had to go all the way to Europe.
We are still in relatively early days of the Court of Protection and the working of the MCA in practice, but a case like this does point up how even when a Judge carefully analyses and balances all of the competing factors, the exercise of a “best interests” decision can completely turn WMA’s life upside down, and unless his capacity to make decisions changes, such a decision will be very hard to reverse or challenge for WMA in the future.
It could be argued, and is being by many who come across the MCA, that the solution is becoming worse than the problem. It is very hard not to be paternalistic when operating the best interests decision. (for me, in this one, the chronic neglect and home conditions probably just tip the balance, when combined with the long-standing unsuccessful attempts to resolve this, but if they do tip the balance, it is only just, and I might well have gone on to find that the article 8 right to private and family life trumped it). It does seem to me a little odd that there’s no presumption in the MCA that the vulnerable person’s family are better placed to make a decision for what is in their best interests unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary.