I’m always interested in Court of Protection cases that drill down into the key principles of autonomy v safeguarding – the dilemma between whether someone should be free to make decisions that an onlooker would consider to be bad or dangerous, or whether the freedom to make such mistakes is how we learn and grow. Of course, in law, the principle consideration is whether the person has capacity to make the decision – which does not necessarily mean that they understand every nuance of it and have weighed it up like Mr Spock – in daily life, we all make decisions without necessarily giving each and every one much thought.
This case also has important things to tell us about just how rotten a society we live in where someone with autism can be exploited on television for a cheap laugh because they don’t have a great singing voice, and even worse that there are sick men in our society who see someone fragile on television or social media and try to exploit them sexually.
Re Z and Others 2016
Z is a 20 year old woman who is autistic. There was a time when she was very focussed on becoming a celebrity and wanted to become a singer. As a result, she appeared on the auditions for a television talent show (the show is not named, but readers are not ignorant and can probably narrow it down to one of two or three).
- Z attended mainstream school, and told me (I am not sure how reliably) that she had obtained a number of GCSEs. She reported that she had many friends at school, although contemporaneous records in fact show her to have been rather isolated and a loner. After school she went on to train in the field of beauty therapy at a local education college, but her passion has always been, and is, music; Z keenly wishes to be a singer. In 2012, Z appeared in a televised talent show; it was not a success. Sadly she now regards the experience as humiliating and she is embarrassed by her performance. She dropped out of college and became depressed. A referral was made to CAMHS. She started to display risky behaviours; her performance was available to view on the internet, and she was deluged with contacts through web-based social media, mainly from men. She met with some of those who contacted her, some of whom allegedly abused or exploited her. She became sexually disinhibited, and some of her sexual experiences were believed to be non-consensual. Over a period of time, Z received support from SECOS (Sexually Exploited Children’s Outreach Services); although she appeared to show some insight into the risks of her behaviours, it became apparent that she did not always apply this insight or learning into practice, and continued to place herself at risk. The last evidence of this kind of risky behaviour with men now goes back to 2013 or (at the latest) 2014.
- In 2013, Z was assessed by a clinical psychologist who concluded that she did not have a diagnosis of learning disability, and she retained capacity to make decisions about social contacts.
- Like many young people, Z occupies her time on different forms of social media. Unlike many, at one time she removed all the privacy settings on her account, and was alleged to post up provocative material about herself. It was said (though she denied it, and I make no finding about it) that she had at one time sent naked photos of herself over the internet for money. For a time, though in my judgment to a much lesser degree now, she craved publicity for her singing, and was focused on becoming a celebrity.
- In the January 2015 interview, it appears that Z demonstrated a good degree of insight into the debacle of her talent show audition, indicating that she would decline further opportunities for a repeat for the time being (“not at the moment, I don’t think I’m ready”). She showed a realistic, if not cynical, view of why men had shown such interest in her following her television appearance (“it’s obvious, men wanted sex with me…”). She denied inappropriate use of social media (“I have kept away from social media … I don’t want to go back to square one”), showing an understanding that people contacting her through social media “might be a risk to me”.
- Dr. Rippon considered that Z showed interest in fame and celebrity status to an “unusual” degree. Dr. Rippon considered that Z had misinterpreted the talent show judges’ comments, and had formed a misguided appreciation of her impressive progression through the audition stages (as a possible object of ridicule rather than through talent). Dr. Rippon was concerned about Z’s “difficulty in processing information particularly that of an abstract nature”, and was of the view that
“… during the course of the proceedings, [Z] would struggle to be able to understand the evidence, either in written or verbal form, that is given in Court, process this information and use it to instruct her counsel appropriately. I also do not believe that [Z] would be unable (sic.) to think through the consequences of the instructions which she is providing to her solicitor or understand the risks to herself of any instructions given”.
and again later, the Judge describing Z’s presentation in Court and in her evidenc
She showed insight into her dismal talent show audition (“it was overwhelming … my nerves seemed to overtake my vocals… it was vocally bad”). She discussed the way in which she had been exploited by men who had contacted her, saying that there was a “bad light” around her at that time
The issue for the Court in this case was whether there should be a declaration as to Z’s capacity to
i) Choose her residence;
ii) Make contacts with others;
iii) Deal with her care;
iv) Litigate in these proceedings.
It was clear that Z had capacity to consent to sexual intercourse – she understood the mechanics of the activity, understood that pregnancy could result and how to mitigate against that and understood the risks of sexually transmitted diseases and how to protect herself.
We have dealt with this issue before as to whether a person who has capacity to consent to sex has the capacity to put him or herself in the position with a potential partner who might pose a risk to them of taking that risk. Most dramatically in this piece
where the Court of Protection were trying to put in place a regime for a man who wanted to have homosexual sex and had capacity to consent to it, but no real understanding of how to weigh up a partner as to whether they would meet his needs or treat him violently and badly. Re A Local Authority v TZ no 2 2014
(and I personally think that the CoP got themselves in a tremendous pickle in that case, with good intentions, but ending up with a regime that was utterly unworkable for a real person)
In this case, the Judge had to weigh up whether Z had capacity in relation to those issues, the dominant one being in making decisions about friendships and relationships
- The Local Authority was perfectly justified in initiating proceedings in June 2014, at what was a very low point in Z’s life when her self-destructive behaviour was posing a significant threat to her well-being, and her capacity to process key decisions was significantly in question. I am inclined to the view (this is not, for obvious reasons, a finding) that she probably did lack capacity to make decisions on the matters under review at that time. However, having reviewed the contemporaneous material with care, and on the evidence available to the court at this hearing, I have reached the conclusion, on a fine balance, that the local authority has not rebutted the presumption of Z’s capacity in relation to the matters under review in this case, at the present time.
- There is no dispute in this case that Z does suffer from an “impairment of … the mind” within the meaning of the MCA 2005, namely her autistic spectrum disorder, with a secondary component being her learning difficulty. The issue as to her capacity focuses in this case on the functional element of the test. At the heart of the dispute is the assessment of Z’s ability to ‘use or weigh’ information (section 3(1)(c)) about risk to herself, and her ability to keep herself safe in independent living, and in her social contacts. Only if I were to find that Z is “unable” (section 3) (and I emphasise ‘inability’ rather than ‘impairment’ – see again  above) to process information relevant to risk (in the ways defined in section 3(1)) could I find her incapacitous in relation to the matters in dispute. As the wording of the statute makes clear, the point in time at which I must capacity is to be tested is now (i.e. “at the material time”).
- In order to determine Z’s capacity, it is not necessary for her to use or weigh every detail of the respective options available, merely the salient factors (see CC v KK and STCC:  above). In this case, it is apparent to me that Z does indeed understand the essential implications of living at home or living independently; as indicated above, Z acknowledged the benefit of having some “guidance” on living independently. She recognised that she would reasonably expect to be allocated a flat, and was able to distinguish between the ‘good’ areas and ‘bad’ areas of town in which to live. I am (perhaps unlike Dr. Rippon) sufficiently persuaded that Z recognises at a material level the benefit of third party support in the event that she is to live on her own. She showed insight into the possible loneliness of living independently; she felt that one of the downsides of leaving home is that she will lose the benefit of having her mother’s “shoulder to cry on” when things are getting her down. She has an outline knowledge of her financial circumstances, and currently appears able to perform basic budgeting. She seems aware that her life is easy now, as all the bills are paid, and she is cared for; I felt that she recognised that she would be giving these comforts up if she were to move. Overall, I am satisfied that Z is able to ‘use or weigh’ the evidence relevant to the matters set out by Theis J in LBX v K and L (see above) at .
- In relation to social contacts, Z needs to be able to weigh up the risks of associating with strangers, particularly those whom she meets through the internet – something which she says that she has indeed learned to deal with through experience. Dr. Rippon acknowledged that, other than with A, there was no evidence of Z making contacts through social media which were of any concern. The fact that she has rejected any ongoing support or care from Dimensions is not evidence in itself that she lacks the capacity to decide on its usefulness. She has articulated her reasons: she does not feel that she currently needs the package, and she feels that the workers are constantly talking about the past not the future, and they ‘talk down’ to her.
- Dr. Rippon expressed the view in November 2014 (see  above), that with time and increased maturity, Z’s ability accurately to assess risk may improve; it is my view that the evidence now available (December 2015) indicates that time and increased maturity, and the benefit of learning from experience, have indeed had that effect. There is no real issue but that 2015 has been a period of relative stability for Z; she has engaged (to a limited extent at least) with the support which is provided for her through Dimensions, and even within the limits of that work, she has impressed the workers with her display of increased maturity. In 2014, Dr. Rippon advised that it would be sensible to re-assess Z’s capacity in “two to three years time”, plainly contemplating a potential future change in capacity, but timescales of this kind are notoriously difficult to gauge, and in my view the evidence appears to have revealed change rather sooner.
- While it may have been that Z showed an “unusual” degree of interest in fame and celebrity in the past (to some extent in 2014, when first interviewed by Dr. Rippon), and a limited appreciation of the quality of her talent-show performance, I do not find that she continues to hold or display these views. More recent discussions (including her evidence in court) reveal a good degree of awareness of the deficiencies of her performance, and a more realistic appraisal of her quest for fame. At the hearing before me, she impressed as someone who was more than just aware that “people should treat you with respect”, apparently mindful that people had not done so in the past. Dr. Rippon expressed scepticism in her 2014 report about Z’s ability to understand the evidence which was to be given in Court, process this information and use it to instruct her counsel appropriately; this scepticism was I believe misplaced. Z showed a good level of attention to the evidence, gave instructions to her solicitor and counsel, and – even on Dr. Rippon’s own view – answered questions in evidence better than she had during the three previous interviews.
- Dr. Rippon entirely fairly observed that young adults are generally able to learn from negative experiences, and use this to support their future decision making. She felt that Z had failed to do this; I do not agree. Z’s behaviour in 2013 and 2014 was, I am prepared to accept for present purposes, intensely destructive; I accept Z’s own assessment that she has at least to some extent “learned how to make decisions”. I accept that she has changed, and I was impressed with her own assessment that “… everything has happened for a reason. It made me stronger and made me more mature” (see  above).
- Dr. Rippon indicated that she would be looking for Z to develop and display insight, that she is not putting herself in risky situations and is understanding of other people’s motives; the trip to Brighton to stay with A was risky to some extent, but not more than usually risky for a young person who is in love, and who has met the object of her affections a number of times on home territory before heading off to see her at her home. Moreover, when the Brighton trip became intolerable, she left.
The Judge here recognised that capacity can fluctuate, and that there had been a time when Z had lacked capacity to keep herself safe but had learned from those experiences and now had the capacity to make decisions for herself about who she wanted to spend time with. Will she make the right decision every time? Probably no more than you or I have always made the right decision about friendships or relationships. Getting things wrong is part of life. If you never get these things wrong, you never have the life-enriching experience of getting them right and finding a true friend or a soul-mate or both. It isn’t for the Court to worry about outcome or to wrap a person in forensic cotton wool – if they have the capacity to make a decision, then they are free to make it, even if you think they are likely to make some bad ones along the way.
- As indicated at the outset of this judgment, some risk-taking in adolescents and young adults can be perfectly healthy, such as in sporting activities, or artistic and creative pursuits, travelling, making new friends (including internet dating and friendship groups), or entering competitions. Healthy risk-taking helps young people to learn. Some adolescent risk-taking can be unhealthy and dangerous – casual sexual relationships, unprotected sex, driving too fast on the roads, excessive consumption of alcohol, consumption of non-prescribed drugs, dealing with anger and confrontation. These forms of risk-taking are inherently unwise and unsafe. In dealing with risk issues in relation to a young person in the context of assessment under the MCA 2005, it is necessary to separate out as far as is possible the evidence which indicates that second category of risk taking (unhealthy, dangerous, unwise) from that which reveals or may reveal a lack of capacity. As Lewison LJ said in PC v City of York (above) “adult autonomy” includes the freedom “to make unwise decisions, provided that they have the capacity to decide” (see ).
- Lewison LJ also referred in the same case (PC v City of York) to the need for a “solid evidential foundation” on which the judge’s decision as to capacity can rest. In this case, as I have earlier mentioned, Mr O’Brien invites me to ‘infer’ a continued existence of risk, and Z’s inability to ‘use or weigh’ information relevant to such risk. An inference can barely be described as an evidential foundation, let alone a ‘solid’ one.
- I have not found this a particularly easy decision, in the main, because more than a year had passed between the filing of the principal evidence and the hearing. Moreover, I am conscious that I am differing in my conclusion from Dr. Rippon, who in many ways was an impressive and helpful witness and who, as I have indicated above (see ) also found the case “incredibly difficult”. In differing from Dr. Rippon, I remind myself that her role and mine are distinct: the expert advises and the court decides. While the opinion of an independently instructed expert in a case such as this is “likely to be of very considerable importance” (Baker J in PH v A Local Authority  EWHC 1704 (COP)), as indeed I find her evidence to be, the decision as to capacity is a judgment for the court (see Re SB  EWHC 1417 (COP)), weighing the expert evidence against my findings on the other evidence. I consider that Dr. Rippon may well have been right in her assessment as to Z’s capacity over a year ago (November 2014), but in my judgment, the passage of time and Z’s greater maturity, coupled with some support from Dimensions and enhanced self-esteem through her music, Z appears to have matured, learned from her mistakes, and developed sufficiently in her capacity to make relevant decisions, and keep herself safe. While the Brighton trip illustrates some unwise decision-making, in fact its greater significance lies in its revelation to me (in contrast to Dr. Rippon) that Z had developed sufficient ability to ‘use or weigh’ information which indicated risk, and insight into the consequences of her choices. In the way she described the visit when giving her unsworn evidence, it is apparent that she was alert throughout the trip to the potential hazards (i.e. the events which made her uncomfortable) and when the relationship with A appeared to be deteriorating badly, she took the appropriate step, entirely independently, of returning home.
- I have conscientiously cautioned myself against considering outcome when determining Z’s functional ability; I repeat this point, as I am conscious that Z is a vulnerable young person who deserves to have, and should be persuaded to receive, support from adult social services going forward. It is tempting for the court to take a paternalistic, perhaps overly risk-averse, approach to Z’s future; but this would be unprincipled and wrong. I am satisfied in any event that Z currently has a reasonably fulfilling life, which enjoys; she has a loving relationship with her mother who currently cares for her well and who, I hope, could be encouraged to do so for a while longer while Z grows further in maturity and confidence.
- That is my judgment.
If you are wondering, this decision and Re TZ are not in conflict, because the Judge here was satisfied that Z had capacity to make the decisions, whereas in Re TZ the Court was satisfied that TZ did not have the capacity to assess risk for himself (though had capacity to consent to sex) and thus tried to construct a workable framework in his best interests that would allow him to express his sexuality and desire whilst keeping him safe. Whether you think that they did so successfully is a matter of opinion….