The law on capacity and sexuality is developing swiftly at the moment, and throwing up some really difficult decisions.
In A Local Authority v TZ (no 2) 2014, the Court of Protection went on from its first judgment that the man, TZ, had the capacity to consent to sexual intercourse. TZ was homosexual, so one of the three principles (does the person understand the mechanics, the risk of STDs and the risk of pregnancy) doesn’t apply.
The issue that then arose was whether TZ had capacity to make safe choices about people he might chose to have sex with.
(1) whether TZ has the capacity to make a decision whether or not an individual with whom he may wish to have sexual relations is safe, and, if not,
(2) whether he has the capacity to make a decision as to the support he requires when having contact with an individual with whom he may wish to have sexual relations.
[I personally bear in mind that almost every parent ever would have wanted at some point and even for a brief flickering moment, the right to veto their child’s choice of boyfriend or girlfriend, but we have to let them make their own mistakes in life. There are certain people who like “bad boys”, sometimes they grow out of it, sometimes they don’t. Most teenagers would prefer someone that their parents disapproved of – John Bender in the Breakfast Club would be no parents choice for their child, but the parents choice of Brian isn’t going to fly. But this is a tricky situation – TZ clearly had some vulnerabilities. The Judge carefully reminded himself of the tension between being protective and giving people freedom to make what others might see as poor choices]
John Bender (bad boy alert)
- Importantly, capacity is both issue-specific and time specific. A person may have capacity in respect of certain matters but not in relation to other matters. Equally, a person may have capacity at one time and not at another. The question is whether, at the date on which the court is considering capacity, the person lacks the capacity in issue.
- Next, as Macur J (as she then was) observed in LBL v RYJ  EWHC 2664 (Fam) (at paragraph 24), “it is not necessary for the person to comprehend every detail of the issue … it is not always necessary for a person to comprehend all peripheral detail .…” The question is whether the person under review can “comprehend and weigh the salient details relevant to the decision to be made” (ibid, paragraph 58).
- Furthermore, in assessing the question of capacity, the court must consider all the relevant evidence. Clearly, the opinion of an independently-instructed expert will be likely to be of very considerable importance, but in addition the court in these cases will invariably have evidence from other professionals who have experience of treating and working with P, the subject of the proceedings, and sometimes from friends and family and indeed from P himself.. As Charles J observed (in the analogous context of care proceedings) in A County Council v KD and L  EWHC 144 (Fam)  1 FLR 851 at paras 39 and 44, “it is important to remember (i) that the roles of the court and the expert are distinct and (ii) it is the court that is in the position to weigh the expert evidence against its findings on the other evidence… the judge must always remember that he or she is the person who makes the final decision”. Thus, when assessing the ability of a person to (a) understand the information relevant to the decision (b) retain that information, and (c) use or weigh that information as part of the process of making the decision, the court must consider all the evidence, not merely the views of the independent expert.
- Finally, I reiterate the further point, to which I have alluded in earlier decisions, including PH v A Local Authority, Z Ltd and R  EWHC 1704 (Fam) and CC v KK  EWHC 2136 (COP). In a case involving a vulnerable adult, there is a risk that all professionals involved with treating and helping that person – including, of course, a judge in the Court of Protection – may feel drawn towards an outcome that is more protective of the adult and thus, in certain circumstances, fail to carry out an assessment of capacity that is detached and objective.
- In this context, as so often, the way forward is illuminated by observations of Munby J, as he then was, on this occasion in Re MM (An Adult)  EWHC 2003 (Fam). In that case (decided under the inherent jurisdiction), the Court was concerned with the approach to be adopted in a case of a person who had capacity to consent to sexual relations but lacked the capacity to make decisions about contact with a long-term partner. In such circumstances, Munby J held that “the court … is entitled to intervene to protect a vulnerable adult from the risk of future harm – the risk of future abuse or future exploitation – so long as there is a real possibility, rather than a merely fanciful risk, of such harm. But the court must adopt a pragmatic, common sense and robust approach to the identification, evaluation and management of perceived risk” (paragraph 119).
“A great judge once said, ‘all life is an experiment’, adding that ‘every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge (see Holmes J in Abrams v United States (1919) 250 US 616 at 630). The fact is that all life involves risk, and the young, the elderly and the vulnerable, are exposed to additional risks and to risks they are less well equipped than others to cope with. But just as wise parents resist the temptation to keep their children metaphorically wrapped up in cotton wool, so too we must avoid the temptation always to put the physical health and safety of the elderly and the vulnerable before everything else. Often it will be appropriate to do so, but not always. Physical health and safety can sometimes be brought at too high a price in happiness and emotional welfare. The emphasis must be on sensible risk appraisal, not striving to avoid all risk, whatever the price, but instead seeking a proper balance and being willing to tolerate manageable or acceptable risks as the price appropriately to be paid in order to achieve some other good – in particular to achieve the vital good of the elderly or vulnerable person’s happiness. What good is it making someone safer if it merely makes them miserable?”
I won’t get heavily into the particular facts in the case, they are all set out in the judgment should you want to read them – there was quite a body of professional opinion that TZ lacked the skills to weigh up whether someone was a safe person to approach or have sex with.
The Court’s decision on capacity is set out below
- I find on a balance of probabilities that TZ does not have the capacity to decide whether a person with whom he may wish to have sexual relations is safe. I base that finding on the detailed assessments of TZ carried out by JS and Dr X, both of whom have had an opportunity to assess him over a period of time. These assessments include extensive conversations with TZ in which he has himself acknowledged that he lacks this capacity. In particular, while he has the ability to understand and retain information, he lacks the ability to use or weigh up the information, including the ability to assess risk and, in the language of s. 3(4), to understand the reasonably foreseeable consequences of the decision. This is, in my judgment, a good example of the distinction identified in paragraph 4.30 of the Code of Practice between, on the one hand, unwise decisions, which a person has the right to make, and, on the other hand, decisions based on a lack of understanding of risks and the inability to weigh up the information concerning a decision.
- I have also borne in mind s. 1(2) – that a person is not to be treated as unable to make a decision unless all practicable steps to help him to do so have been taken without success. Having regard to Dr X’s advice, however, I consider that there is no immediate prospect of extending TZ’s capacity via a programme of education. Such a programme must, of course, be an integral part of the best interests care plan which would be put in place as a result of a declaration of incapacity.
- The evidence therefore establishes that he lacks the capacity to decide whether or not any individual with whom he may wish to have a sexual relationship is safe. As to the second capacity in issue, JS concluded in her report that he did have the capacity to make decisions regarding his care and support. In oral evidence, however, JS qualified this opinion, saying that TZ can understand why he needs support “if he is in the right frame of mind”, and that his capacity in this respect is variable. She said that sometimes he is more open about taking things on board than at other times. Dr X concluded that TZ lacked this capacity. He thought that TZ’s current compliance with support did not mean that he understands the need for that support and thought it quite likely that at some stage he would ask a support worker to leave.
- Notwithstanding the view set out in JS’s written assessment, I conclude after close analysis that TZ does not have the capacity to decide what support he requires when having contact with an individual with whom he may wish to have sexual relations.
- In reaching these conclusions as to capacity, I have reminded myself, again, of the need to avoid what could be called the vulnerable person’s protective imperative – that is to say, the dangers of being drawn towards an outcome that is more protective of the adult and thus fail to carry out an assessment of capacity that is detached and objective. I do not consider that I have fallen into that trap in this case.
But having established that TZ lacks that capacity, the Court then have to approach any declarations with a view to what is in TZ’s best interests
- Mr. McKendrick reminds me of the dicta of Munby J in ITW v Z  EWHC 2525 (Fam) at paragraph 35:
“First, P’s wishes and feelings will always be a significant factor to which the court must pay close regard …. Secondly, the weight to be attached to P’s wishes and feelings will always be case-specific and fact-specific …. Thirdly, in considering the weight and importance to be attached to P’s wishes and feelings, the court must … have regard to all the relevant circumstances … [which] will include … (a) the degrees of P’s incapacity … (b) the strength and consistency of the views being expressed by P; (c) the possible impact on P of knowledge that [his] wishes and feelings are not being given effect to … (d) the extent to which P’s wishes and feelings are, or are not, rational, sensible, responsible and, pragmatically capable of sensible implementation in the particular circumstances; and (e) crucially, the extent to which P’s wishes and feelings, if given effect to, can properly be accommodated within the court’s overall assessment of what is in [his] best interests.”
- Mr. McKendrick further submits, rightly, that in applying the principle in s.1(6) and generally, the Court must have regard to TZ’s human rights, in particular his rights under article 8 of ECHR to respect for private and family life. As the European Court of Human Rights observed in Niemitz v Germany (1993) 16 EHRR 97 at para 29, “private life” includes, inter alia, the right to establish relationships with other human beings. This has been reiterated on a number of occasions, see for example Pretty v UK (2002) EHRR 1 at paragraph 61 and in Evans v UK (2008) 46 EHRR 34 at paragraph 71. There is a positive obligation on the state to take measures to ensure that his private life is respected, and the European Court has stated that “these obligations may involve the adoption of measures designed to secure respect for private life even in the sphere of the relations of individuals between themselves”: Botta v Italy (1998) 26 EHRR 241 paragraph 33.
- These principles plainly apply when considering what steps should be taken to protect someone, such as TZ, who has the capacity to consent to sexual relations but lacks both the capacity to make a decision whether or not an individual with whom he may wish to have sexual relations is safe and the capacity to make a decision as to the support he requires when having contact with such an individual. In such circumstances, the state through the local authority is under a positive obligation to take steps to ensure that TZ is supported in having a sexual relationship should he wish to do so.
- In passing, it should be noted that this is consistent with the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, (ratified by the UK in 2009 although not yet incorporated into English law) and in particular article 23 which requires states to “take effective and appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against persons with in all matters relating to marriage, family, parenthood and relationships, on an equal basis with others”.
How to apply those principles to TZ’s case
- In the light of these principles and dicta, what steps should this court now take in TZ’s best interests?
- On behalf of the Official Solicitor, Mr. McKendrick asserts that the challenge for the parties and the court is to develop a best interests framework which permits TZ sufficient autonomy of decision-making and respects his right to a private life whilst balancing the need to protect him from harm. He identifies three options: (1) take no best interests decision at this stage but react should TZ find himself in a situation when he is the subject of harm or at risk of harm; (2) require the applicant local authority to draft a care plan and submit it to the court for approval; (3) appoint a welfare deputy to make decisions on TZ’s behalf. Neither party is advocating for the first option. Both parties agree that the court should direct the local authority to file a care plan. The issues are, first, as to the contents of that plan and, secondly, whether a welfare deputy should be appointed.
- The local authority has filed a draft care support plan. The Official Solicitor has made a number of observations about that plan. There is considerable common ground between the two parties, but some differences remain.
- What follows are some proposals by the court for the sort of measures that should be included in the plan. Decision-making for incapacitated adults should, as far as possible, be a collaborative exercise. The observations as to the contents of the plan should be seen as part of that process.
- I propose that the plan should contain the following elements: (a) basic principles; (b) education and empowerment; (c) support; (d) intervention; (e) decision-making. Under this last heading, I shall consider the local authority’s application for the appointment of a deputy.
(a) Basic principles
(1) TZ lives at H Home. In due course, he may move to a step-down facility and, in the long run, into supported living.
(2) He will have available to him a number of hours of 1 : 1 support every week. Currently that is fixed at 32 hours.
(3) He has capacity to consent to and enter into sexual relations. He has the right to establish relationships with other human beings and wishes to meet other men with whom he may have sexual relations.
(4) He lacks the capacity to make a decision whether or not an individual with whom he may wish to have sexual relations is safe and the capacity to make a decision as to the support he requires when having contact with such an individual.
(5) The local authority and the Court are under a positive obligation to ensure that he is supported in having a sexual relationship should he wish to do so, but also to ensure, as far as possible, that he is kept safe from harm.
(6) The purpose of the plan is therefore to identify the support to be provided to assist him in developing a sexual relationship without exposing him to a risk of harm.
You can see, hopefully, that the overall goal of the plan is to keep TZ safe whilst teaching him the skills he will need to keep himself safe – he is not prevented from forming relationships with other men, nor indeed from having sex with them; it is more that he is to be assisted in making those decisions.
Getting down to brass tacks though, what are professionals supposed to do if TZ meets someone he is attracted to?
- Mr McKendrick submits, and I agree, that TZ must have some “space” to make decisions for himself, even if this involves making mistakes, to assist him to learn (as far as he can) from the consequences of those decisions. Mr Dooley indicated that the local authority agreed that learning through experience is critical for TZ.
- Mr McKendrick further submits, and I accept, that, should TZ meet a stranger, he is entitled to have private time with that person and support staff should intervene only if there is an identified risk of that person being abusive towards TZ. I agree with the Official Solicitor that the local authority and its support staff cannot interview or ‘vet’ anyone with whom TZ wishes to communicate and cannot assume that everyone he speaks to is likely to present a risk of abuse. Mr Dooley stated that the local authority’s position is that, if there is a problem in these circumstances, there will need to be a risk assessment to determine whether intervention is required. Having identified that intervention is required, the next step would be to consider the least restrictive intervention necessary to ensure that TZ is safe.
- In the event that TZ decides he wishes to spend the night with someone, the care plan must provide that a private space can be made available. H Home has now indicated that he will be permitted to have a visitor to stay subject to the proviso that any visitor would have to be subject to safeguarding checks to protect other residents. A similar provision would be made in the event that TZ moved to a step-down facility.
- If TZ meets someone and develops a relationship, or if he says he wishes to leave H Home and cohabit with another person, a specific capacity assessment will be required to determine whether he has the capacity to make a decision about contact with that person. If the outcome is that he has capacity, the sexual relationship should be facilitated, unless it is concluded that there is a significant risk of harm. If the assessment concludes that he lacks that capacity, or that there is a likelihood that he will suffer significant harm as a result of a relationship, a further application will have to be made to the court. If the court accepts that he lacks capacity, a best interests decision will then be made. If the court concludes that he has capacity, but that he is at risk of harm, it may be that the court would resort to protective powers under its inherent jurisdiction as to vulnerable adults. At all stages, of course, TZ must be assisted to participate in the decision-making process.
It is not the role of the Local Authority to ‘vet’ TZ’s partners or potential partners, nor do they have a role of veto
- the plan must clearly delineate the circumstances in which care workers may intervene to protect TZ and the steps they are entitled to take when intervening.
- On behalf of the Official Solicitor, Mr McKendrick submits, and I accept, that it is not the role of the local authority staff to vet TZ’s sexual partners. They must not deny him private time with a proposed sexual partner simply because they consider that partner is unsuitable, unless there is a clearly identified risk that the proposed partner poses a real risk of abuse to TZ during their contact. As the Official Solicitor submits, the assessment of abuse must be rigorous and evidence-based, or, adopting the phrase used by Munby J in Re MM, (supra) “pragmatic, common sense and robust”. As the Official Solicitor points out, capacitous adults also run the risk of abuse and harm. The adults protecting TZ must be given the tools to assist him, because of his vulnerabilities, but they cannot act in his best interests by attempting to eliminate all risks of harm. (“What good is making someone safe if it merely makes them miserable?”)
- As JS has set out in her draft support plan, if TZ says he wants to go off with someone he has just met, the care workers would try to dissuade him, reminding him of the staged approach to new relationships previously discussed and agreed. In the event that he refused to listen to support workers in those circumstances, and where there were concerns regarding the risk of harm, the care worker involved should immediately alert management, who would in turn ensure that legal representatives were informed. A decision would then be taken as to whether the police should be informed, and/or whether an application should be made to the Court of Protection.
There was a mental health case in the last year, where a Judge set down a seventeen point plan of things that ought to be considered by a hospital before deciding that a patient was so dangerous that he needed to be transferred to a safer hospital, and the Court of Appeal ended up observing that if you get a Judge to draw up a model, he or she invariably draws up a very judicial/lawyery one which attempts to dot every i, and cross every t, but reality doesn’t always allow for that. I think that this is a damn good attempt to put a framework in place that tries to give TZ freedom and keep him safe and they are laudable aims – I am certain that I could not have done any better. But it does bring up the mental picture of a man smiling at TZ in Starbucks and staff members thumbing through the judgment to initiate “Phase Four of the plan”
Do you suspect that the staff will be likely to be on low alert for a Brian, but be contemplating intervention for the bad-boy type?