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Capacity to consent to sexual intercourse

Another useful case on this issue from Baker J sitting in the Court of Protection.

A Local Authority v TZ  2013

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/COP/2013/2322.html

There are a few unusual features of this case – firstly that the Local Authority and the Official Solicitor representing TZ were in agreement that TZ DID have capacity to consent to sexual intercourse and it was the expert who was not, thus leading to the need for a Judge to make the determination.

Secondly, as illustrated very neatly by Baker J, there is the potential line of conflict between authorities decided in the Court of Protection and authorities decided in the Supreme Court, as to whether capacity to consent to sexual intercourse was merely ‘act specific’  (as the Court of Protection have said) or whether it is ‘act and person specific’  (as Baroness Hale said in R v Cooper 2009 which was a criminal prosecution)

  1. How is a court to determine capacity to consent to sexual relations? It is well established that capacity to marry is to be assessed in general and as a matter of principle and not by reference to any particular proposed marriage: see the decision of Munby J (as he then was) in Sheffield City Council v E [2005] Fam 326, approved by the Court of Appeal in the PC case (supra) at paragraph 23 of McFarlane LJ’s judgment. It is act specific and status specific rather than person specific or spouse specific. In a further case, Local Authority X v MM [2007] EWHC 2003 (Fam), hereafter referred to as ‘MM‘, Munby J adopted the same approach to capacity to consent to sexual relations, holding that it, too, is act specific rather than person specific. At paragraph 86 Munby J said:

“The question [capacity to consent to sexual relations] is issue specific, both in the general sense and…in a sense that capacity has to be assessed in relation to the particular kind of sexual activity in question. But capacity to consent to sexual relations is, in my judgment, a question directed to the nature of the activity rather than to the identity of the sexual partner.”

 

  1. This approach was, however, disapproved by Baroness Hale of Richmond in R v Cooper [2009] UKHL 42 [2009] 1 WLR 1786 in the context of a criminal prosecution for an offence of sexual activity with a person with a mental disorder impeding choice, contrary to the Sexual Offences Act 2003. In paragraph 27 of her speech in that case, Baroness Hale observed:

“My Lords, it is difficult to think of an activity which is more person-and situation-specific than sexual relations. One does not consent to sex in general. One consents to this act of sex with this person at this time and in this place. Autonomy entails the freedom and the capacity to make a choice of whether or not to do so. This is entirely consistent with the respect for autonomy in matters of private life which is guaranteed by article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The object of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 was to get away from the previous ‘status’ – based approach which assumed that all ‘defectives’ lacked capacity, and thus denied them the possibility of making autonomous choices, while failing to protect those whose mental disorder deprived them of autonomy in other ways.”

Mostyn J grappled with this tension in D Borough Council v AB 2011

  1. In D Borough Council v AB [2011] EWHC 101 (Fam), [2011] COPLR Con Vol 313, [2011] 2 FLR 72, a case involving a man with a moderate learning disability, whom the judge referred to as ‘Alan’, Mostyn J grasped the nettle of addressing the conflict between Munby J’s decision in MM, a case that pre-dated the Mental Capacity Act, and Baroness Hale’s observations in R v Cooper, a Supreme Court case that post-dated the Mental Capacity Act but were made in the context of a case involving a different statutory provision. Mostyn J came down firmly on the side of Munby J’s approach. Having acknowledged the correctness of Baroness Hale’s observation quoted above that ‘it is difficult to think of an activity that is more person-and situation-specific than sexual relations’, he added (paragraph 35):

“but the same is true (if not truer) of marriage. But it does not follow that capacity to marry is spouse-as opposed to status- specific. Far from it. I do think, with the greatest possible respect, that there has been a conflation of capacity to consent to sex and the exercise of that capacity. There is also a very considerable practical problem in allowing a partner-specific dimension into the test. Consider this case. Is the local authority supposed to vet every proposed sexual partner of Alan to gauge if Alan has the capacity to consent to sex with him or her?”

And Baker J notes that there is the possibility of the Court of Protection line coming into difficulties if a case ever goes to the Supreme Court, but concludes that in this case   (particularly since what TZ intended was to embark on sexual relationships with persons he considered suitable in the future who he had not yet met, rather than with a single known partner) it was more proportionate to look at whether TZ had capacity on an ‘act specific’ way, rather than whether he had capacity to consent to sex with particular individuals.

I can see merit on both sides – if for example, a person with difficulties was in a relationship with a partner who was very alive to his issues and very skilled in explaining things to the person and had no intention of taking advantage of them, that might require slightly less capacity than a partner with very different approach and morals. I think that on the issue of intrusion, however, Baker J was right.

The next interesting aspect is the three-tier test of capacity to consent to sexual intercourse as devised by Munby J and endorsed by Mostyn J in D Borough Council v AB 2011

  1. 27.   “I therefore conclude that the capacity consent to sex remains act-specific and requires an understanding and awareness of: the mechanics of the act; that there are health risks involved, particularly the acquisition of sexually transmitted and sexually transmissable infections; that sex between a man and a woman may result in the woman becoming pregnant.”

 

There has been speculation, including within judgments as to whether all three elements are applicable where there is no risk of pregnancy (particularly with regard to a homosexual relationship)

The issue arose specifically in this case, as TZ’s sexual orientation was homosexual, and he wished to have sex with men, rather than women.

I believe that this is the first time that the Court of Protection have decided the issue, rather than simply speculated about it. So, this is the key passage

  1. I therefore conclude that in the case of a person in respect of whom it is clearly established that he or she is homosexual – gay or lesbian – it is ordinarily unnecessary to establish that the person has an understanding or awareness that sexual activity between a man and a woman may result in pregnancy.
  1. Having said that, it goes without saying that human sexuality is profound and complex and there are many people, such as Alan in D Borough Council v AB and indeed TZ in the current case, who have, at times, been attracted to both men and women. In those circumstances, it will be necessary to establish an understanding and awareness of the fact that sex between a man and a woman may result in pregnancy as part of the assessment of capacity to consent to sexual relations.

Having established the appropriate test (did TZ understand the mechanical action and the health risks?) the Judge then considered whether TZ met that test

  1. TZ spoke frankly about his own sexuality. He said that he had come out as gay about a year ago. Before that, he had been a bit confused but now was not. There are some reports in the local authority records suggesting that he may have been attracted to women at one stage since he moved into H Home. TZ was clear that this was no longer the case. “I’m not attracted to women at all, just men.” He said that it was important to be friends first with someone before moving onto a sexual relationship. Asked what he would get out of such a relationship, he identified sexual pleasure, but also thought it was important “to be happy and healthy, not be abused, and not be let down”. It seemed to me that he was referring back to unhappy experiences in previous relationships. “It’s not just the sex, it’s about being happy and safe and secure in the relationship.”
  1. TZ described in simple terms the physical acts of sex both between a man and a woman and between two men. He indicated that he understood that, “if men and women have sex, the woman can get pregnant”. He knew that a man cannot become pregnant. He was aware of the health risks from sexual activity, and listed the names of several sexually transmitted diseases. He said that the way of avoiding catching any of these diseases was to use a condom. He said that he knew there was a risk of the condom splitting, and in those circumstances he would get himself tested. He has been tested twice before for HIV. On each occasion, the test was negative.
  1. He said that he would like to have the opportunity to meet a man, by going to places such as gay bars. He said that he had learned to take his time because “you can’t judge a book by its cover”. He said he would rather not rush things, but would rather wait to see if he could trust the man. He would not have sex on a first encounter but would wait until he knew the man a little better. “Sometimes it’s easy to make the right choice, sometimes it isn’t, but I would try to make the right choice.”

The expert’s view seemed to be that TZ did not meet the test because he was not able to use and weigh information before making a decision in relation to sexual intercourse and did not have an understanding of the emotional consequences involved.

The Judge rejected that argument.

  1. It seems to me, with respect, that Dr. X is making a similar error as that made by the expert in D Borough Council v AB when he stipulates that the ability to use and weigh relevant information before consenting to sexual relations involves “a complex analysis of risks and benefits often in the abstract and hypothetical”. In D Borough Council v AB, the expert suggested that one essential ingredient of capacity to consent to sexual relations was “an awareness that sex is part of having relations with people and may have emotional consequences”. Mostyn J observed in response (at paragraph 37):

“This criterion is much too sophisticated to be included in the low level of understanding and intelligence needed to be able to consent to sex. Apart from anything else, I would have thought that a great deal of sex takes place where one party or the other is wholly oblivious to this supposed necessity.”

  1. Most people faced with the decision whether or not to have sex do not embark on a process of weighing up complex, abstract or hypothetical information. I accept the submission on behalf of the Official Solicitor that the weighing up of the relevant information should be seen as a relatively straightforward decision balancing the risks of ill health (and possible pregnancy if the relations are heterosexual) with pleasure, sexual and emotional brought about by intimacy. There is a danger that the imposition of a higher standard for capacity may discriminate against people with a mental impairment.
  1. In any event, I am satisfied in this case, having spoken to TZ myself, that he does have an understanding of the need to weigh up the emotional consequences of having sexual relations. This was evident to me from his comment that he would rather not rush things, but would rather wait to see if he could trust the man and by his observation that “sometimes it’s easy to make the right choice, sometimes it isn’t, but I would try to make the right choice.” This insight seemed to me to be well above the level of “rudimentary” ability required.
  1. Overall, I find that TZ does have the capacity to use and weigh the information to the degree required for capacity to consent to sexual relations. I think he has been significantly helped in that regard by the sensitive programme of sex education he has received. Like most people, he may behave impulsively at some point in the future, and in his case that tendency may be accentuated by his ADHD, but I do not consider that this tendency means that he lacks the ability to use and weigh the relevant information.
  1. I therefore declare that TZ has the capacity to consent to and engage in sexual relations
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About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

8 responses

  1. In my limited experience If a lady removes her underwear and then lies on her back with her legs raised and wide apart one can usually assume consent.Sadly however at 81 years of age I now have to rely (mostly) on my most cherished memories……………………

  2. I agree that consent is physical and not cerebral. If one reaches for water after being placed on the Liverpool Care Plan which in NHS hospitals can be followed by `nil by mouth` and therefore dehydrate you to death, your need for water should be paramount and their little notes about `nil by mouth` should take second place to your absolute right to life and water.,

  3. forcedadoption

    “I therefore conclude that the capacity consent to sex remains act-specific and requires an understanding and awareness of: the mechanics of the act; that there are health risks involved, particularly the acquisition of sexually transmitted and sexually transmissable infections; that sex between a man and a woman may result in the woman becoming pregnant.”
    What a load of cobblers above from those terrible twins:”Munby and Mostyn” ! Any adult man whether mentally impaired or not has the capacity to consent to sex just like any male animal with no philisophical musing or discussions. Not many (if any) men cry rape even if forced by a strong woman ! I can only talk for hetro men of course but no doubt gays ,lesbians,and straight women will have their say after reading this column with comments so far !

  4. Pingback: Capacity to consent to sexual intercourse | Chi...

  5. Yes there is something absurd about this – nature/evolution created sexual behaviour which was never in the animal kingdom preceded by ‘cerebral analysis’ of any understanding of what is involved.

    People under the influence of alcohol could be said to lack capacity to consent, yet they are not forbidden to have sex by judges.

    Humans indulged before the advent of contraception or understanding of the relationship with pregnancy. This is about what the ‘powers’ in contemporary times have decided about the rights of others to have a normal humn relationship with risks, in a more sophisticated social structure.

    • There’s a balance, I think, between protecting the vulnerable from being abused by people taking advantage and in depriving the vulnerable of the opportunity to have autonomy and life experiences. Very hard to get that balance right. I don’t think the 3 tier test is all that onerous (a bit too heavy on the health risks, perhaps) – particularly given that in practice the person is helped and guided to reach understanding of those 3 issues. In a case like TZ, it seems odd that the doctor was wanting to deny his capacity – what TZ told the Judge seems a lot more reasoned than most young people out on a weekend or summer holiday apply to the issues.

      • And don’t forget that people who are too drunk to properly consent to sex are protected in law (rape laws cover that situation). It just means that the test is applied on a situation specific basis, rather than a generic ‘does this person have capacity to make decisions generally’

      • The problem is that someone else decides, sometimes arbitrarily, what that balance should be to protect the vulnerable from exploitation.

        But there are probably many people who are easily vulnerable to exploitation (gullible/ easily duped) who do not fall under the MCA- if their lives are destroyed they can try and use the law for some redress.

        The lack of legal capacity in the MCA means those deemed incapacitated are unable to take any legal action personally (or be helped in this) if they are exploited and suffer personally. Basically the MCA has created ‘non persons’ in the eyes of the law- hence they can be ‘interfered with only ‘by the state system- even if that causes distress or harm- ‘in their best interests’- the meaningless catch all phrase’.

        Is it a wonder than the rise in insittutional abuses is growing?

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