The decision in Re DE 2013 , and issues arising from this
I will start by saying that this is obviously a controversial judgment, dealing with the State intervening in the private life of an individual, and the Court authorising the sterilisation of a man who did not have capacity to agree to such an operation.
I actually think that the judgment was very fair and well-balanced and carefully looked at the need to respect DE’s rights and interests, and did not smack of the patrician attitude or eugenic approach that one might think going by some of the media reporting. I only have one real critique of it, but it is an important one. There are some really good articles analysing this decision, in both a critical and supportive tone, and it is a thought-provoking issue.
This was a Court of Protection decision, dealing with the application by the NHS for the following three declarations
a) DE does not have capacity to make a decision on whether or not to undergo a vasectomy and to consent to this procedure;
b) That it is lawful and in DE’s best interests that he should undergo a vasectomy;
c) It is lawful for the NHS Trust to take any steps which are medically advised by the treating clinicians at the trust responsible for DE’s care to undertake this procedure which may include the use of a general anaesthetic and all such steps as may be necessary to arrange and undertake the procedure including general anaesthesia.
The Court went on to note what made the declarations sought newsworthy (and indeed the case made national news)
If the declarations sought are made it will, the court is told by the Official Solicitor, be the first time that a court in this jurisdiction has made orders permitting the sterilisation for non therapeutic reasons of a male unable to consent to such a procedure.
There was quite a well-balanced piece on this in the Guardian, for example
It is important to note at an early stage, that if DE had capacity to make decisions for himself (and the Mental Capacity Act 2005 has as a starting point that people DO have such capacity unless demonstrated otherwise) then the Court have no real role in matters save for determining whether he does or does not have capacity.
People get to make decisions for themselves, unless the Court declare that they don’t have capacity to make that decision; and in broad terms the capacity means that with help and guidance the person can understand the competing factors involved, can weigh up those factors, and can communicate their decision. (It is REALLY important to understand that a person with capacity can still make what appear to be really stupid or bad decisions; capacity isn’t about people making logical decisions but that they understand (a) that there are factors to take into account and what those factors are (b) that they should weigh up those factors and are capable of doing so and (c) can communicate their decision afterwards. The law doesn’t, or shouldn’t, interfere with people making foolish decisions, only with people who don’t have capacity to make a decision)
If he has capacity, the operation will only take place if both he and the doctors agree to it. It irked me considerably how many of the reports of the case by the media made reference to DE “agreeing to the vasectomy” – if he had capacity to agree to it, the decision wouldn’t have been made by a Court, what he had were wishes and feelings about it which fell short of capacity to make the decision. Those are important to take into account in the stage AFTER capacity, which is “what is in this person’s best interests to do next?”
The history is fairly simple.
2. DE suffers from a learning disability. He lives with his parents FG and JK. With the dedication of his parents and the support of his local disability services, DE has prospered and achieved far beyond what may have been expected given his level of disability. Prior to 2009, not only had he achieved a modest measure of autonomy in his day to day life, but he had a long standing and loving relationship with a woman, PQ, who is also learning disabled.
3. In 2009 PQ became pregnant and subsequently had a child XY. The consequences were profound for both families; legitimate concerns that DE may not have capacity to consent to sexual relations meant that protective measures had to be put in place to ensure that DE and PQ were not alone and DE became supervised at all times. DE was clear that he did not want any more children. His relationship nearly broke under the strain but remarkably it has weathered the storm
4. There is no question of DE having the capacity to make decisions as to use of contraception. FG and JK formed the view that the best way, in his interests, to achieve DE’s wish not to have any more children and to restore as much independence as possible to him was by his having a vasectomy.
Unfortunately for me, I think the key issue is actually the matter dismissed in a single sentence at para 4 (my underlining)
I think there were 3 separate issues on which one needs to know if DE had capacity
(a) Can he consent to sex (if not, contraception not all that important, because the State can’t condone him engaging in sexual intercourse)
(b) Does he have capacity to make decisions about contraception? (if he can, vasectomy only an issue if he DECIDES that he wants to go the vasectomy route)
(c) Does he have capacity to consent to a vasectomy operation?
A capacity report undertaken in November 2012 concluded that DE did not have capacity to consent to sexual intercourse. That obviously posed significant problems for his relationship with PQ, and what obligations were on the other members of the family to prevent a sexual relationship taking place.
(There are some really big issues here about a case where two people with capacity issues love each other and wish to express those feelings physically, although they do not reach the level of understanding the law deems as being able to consent to sexual intercourse. Probably neither has the mens rea needed to commit the offence, but their carers could find themselves in legal difficulty for not having prevented such an offence occurring. Whilst it is VITAL that the law protects people who lack capacity to understand the nature of sex from being exploited by those who do, it seems to interfere profoundly with the private life of two such people in a relationship together. This is a really really tough issue, and I have no idea how one would legislate about it, but I suspect we are not that far off a Court hearing dealing with this specific issue)
The Court made an interim declaration following that report that DE did not have capacity to consent to sexual intercourse and the relevant Local Authority had to convene a safeguarding meeting and come up with a plan to protect DE from unlawful sexual activity.
At a hearing on 15 November 2012 in the light of Dr Milnes’ report the court made by consent an interim declaration that DE did not have the capacity to consent to sexual relations. The Local Authority, quite properly and appropriately, thereafter held a Safeguarding Adults’ Conference on 30 November 2012. A Protection Plan was put in place meaning that DE and PQ were not to be left alone without supervision. Inevitably this had a significant impact on all DE’s activities, for example transport home being provided instead of DE getting the bus to avoid chance meetings with PQ. MB summarised the impact on DE as having experienced the loss of:
a) Engaging without supervision/staff support, with the local community
b) Walking through town from one venue to another with a friend
c) Going to shops, making purchases, interacting with traders and passers by
d) Using the local gym and facilities on the same terms as any other participant
and that is before one factors in the loss to DE of any form of privacy or time on his own with his long term girlfriend.
At about this time PQ ended the relationship with DE to his considerable distress. At the time it was not clear why PQ had decided to do this but, in due course, it was realised that she had wrongly believed that these proceedings in some way related to XY and she thought that if she stayed with DE she might lose her baby. In addition to this fear it had had to be explained to PQ that if she and DE had sexual intercourse she would be committing a criminal offence. It is hardly surprising that, frightened and with a limited ability wholly to understand what was happening, PQ completely withdrew from DE. DE therefore suffered a further loss, namely the loss of PQ between about November and June of 2013.
MB initially felt that DE coped well with the increased supervision and filed a statement to that effect but, as time went on it became clear to her that there was in fact a marked adverse impact upon DE. Gradually his ability to go out and to do things on his own was being lost and by April 2013 there were considerable concerns about DE’s reduced level of independence. It has to be remembered that each achievement on DE’s part takes months if not years to be gained and if not used and reinforced is quickly lost. FG told me that as winter approached last year DE stopped going to the day centre on the bus on his own, she said DE said that it was because it was cold, but Dr Milne felt it may well have been a loss of confidence and fear of doing wrong
And so one can see that the legitimate desire to protect DE from unlawful sexual intercourse ended up having all sorts of detrimental impacts on his quality of life and independence.
Work was undertaken to try to raise DE’s awareness of sexual matters, to lift his understanding to a point where he COULD be judged to have capacity to consent to it, it being plain that DE and PQ wished to be in a relationship and wished physical intimacy to be a part of that.
34. The Official Solicitor has felt it necessary, notwithstanding the universal views now expressed by the witnesses, to explore the issue as to DE’s capacity to enter into sexual relations. At the conclusion or the oral evidence in relation to this aspect of the case, the Official Solicitor now accepts that the court should proceed on the basis that DE has capacity to enter into sexual relations. Having read all the reports and heard the evidence I am satisfied that DE has capacity to enter into sexual relationships, although it will be necessary for him to have so called ‘top-up’ sessions to ensure that he remembers how to keep himself safe from sexually transmitted infections and diseases.
Whilst DE can consent to having a sexual relationship, it is accepted by all parties that he does not have capacity to consent to contraception and will not regain the necessary capacity. It is therefore remains for the court to determine whether or not it is in DE’s best interests to have a vasectomy. In order to carry out the balancing exercise required in order for the court to reach a decision it is necessary for the court to consider in some detail certain aspects of DE’s life and of his views in so far as they can be ascertained.
And then, on ability to consent to the surgical procedure of a vasectomy
52 t is agreed that DE lacks the capacity to weigh up the competing arguments for and against having a vasectomy. That is not going to change no matter how dedicated and skilful the work carried out with DE may be. His wishes and feelings in relation to having a vasectomy have rightly been explored. He has been broadly been in favour of the idea although in his most recent session with CH and ZZ on 23 July 2013 and with Dr Milnes, he expressed a view that he would prefer to use condoms. Neither CH nor Dr Milnes think these recent meetings are wholly to be relied upon. On 23 July, DE had just learnt that a very close friend had died and was deeply distressed, in addition, he had just had a session in which the issue of pain immediately following a vasectomy was discussed with DE. CH thought that this may have been the influencing factor. Dr Milnes’ final view is that if it is explained to DE that a vasectomy is foolproof in relation to “no more babies”, but that he might conceive with a condom he would go for the vasectomy.
53 I approach DE’s wishes and feelings in relation to a vasectomy with the utmost caution. DE does not have the capacity to consent to a vasectomy and that must inevitably colour the court’s approach.
Going back to my list then, DE had been determined to have capacity to have sexual intercourse, to lack capacity to make a decision about surgery and vasectomy.
That left issue number 2 – did he have the capacity to make his own decisions about contraception? If he did, the issue of surgery did not arise (other than that if he ASKED for a vasectomy, the medical professionals knew that he did not have capacity to consent to the operation)
What the heck is the test for a person’s capacity in making decisions about contraception? How did the Court establish whether or not DE had it?
35.Whilst DE can consent to having a sexual relationship, it is accepted by all parties that he does not have capacity to consent to contraception and will not regain the necessary capacity. It is therefore remains for the court to determine whether or not it is in DE’s best interests to have a vasectomy. In order to carry out the balancing exercise required in order for the court to reach a decision it is necessary for the court to consider in some detail certain aspects of DE’s life and of his views in so far as they can be ascertained
54. In relation to the reported cases on consent to contraception there remains uncertainty as to whether a man needs to understand female contraception as well as male contraception before he is deemed to have capacity. In my judgment DE does not have the capacity to consent to contraception on any level. I therefore do not need to consider the issue and do not propose to comment on how a court, having heard full argument in a case where the issue is relevant, might decide.
I’m ever so slightly infuriated by this, if it is possible for such a state to exist.
It seems to me that before the Court embark on the best interests decision (which I consider was all done perfectly properly and I can quite see why the decision to declare that the NHS could perform the vasectomy was made) it was VITAL to decide what it was that DE did not have capacity to decide, and what the test for that capacity was.
Particularly given that he now had capacity to consent to intercourse, and that his capacity had been raised by intervention to reach that point. The capacity to consent to intercourse involves of course not just an understanding of the mechanics and the physical act, but the consequences of it (including pregnancy and the possibility of STDs)
I am struggling quite a bit to see how a person such as DE can be capable of understanding the consequences of sexual intercourse, but not making decisions about what contraceptive action to undertake. And of course, it takes two to tango, as the saying goes, so PQ’s ability to make decisions about contraception would factor into this.
[The Court said no in relation to the latter point, for these reasons.
In my judgment the court should not factor into account any contraceptive measure PQ may be taking for two reasons:
i) The evidence is that PQ is unreliable in taking the contraceptive pill and has a phobia of needles so a Depo injection has been discounted.
ii) In the event that the relationship breaks down, it is likely that he will form another relationship. In the group of learning disabled people who form DE’s social circle, it is the norm for there to be relationships within the group; DE is popular and friendly and after 11 years with PQ accustomed to having a girlfriend. Even if PQ was wholly reliable in relation to her own contraceptive care, a future girlfriend may not be so assiduous.
I agree on point (i), am not so sure about point (ii) – it seems to me that this would be a relevant factor in deciding when it arises, and not to fortune tell]
It was universally accepted that the decisions about how DE could have sex without producing offspring was something that he could not decide; but in nothing like the detail of the other two capacity decisions.
Once the Court accepted that DE did not have the capacity to make decisions about how to manage sex without producing offspring (and all parties accepted that he didn’t), the best interests decision was the next step, and in relation to this, I think the Court’s analysis is faultless from there on out.
The Court went on to balance the use of other contraceptives against a vasectomy, and used the reliability of those measures as a key factor; particularly taking into account the abilities and limitations of DE and PQ in reliably and properly undertaking those measures. The Court also went on to consider everything that DE and PQ had expressed about their wish for physical intimacy but not to have another child.
It is a very careful balance about what is best for DE, taking into account all of his circumstances and his wishes and feelings, and not putting too much emphasis on any one issue. I think it is a damn good judgment and decision.
I am just left a bit unsettled about the key issue – the decision under question was not “should DE have a vasectomy” but “should the State take over DE’s decision-making in relation to contraception” (and thereafter, what’s better for DE – vasectomy or alternative contraception) and I remain very vague about what the test for capacity in relation to that question was, and why DE was considered not to satisfy it.
I can’t really blame the Court for not dealing with the issue of capacity to contraception in a more in-depth way, given that all parties accepted DE did not have it and the Judge concluding that she was completely satisfied that DE did not have it.
But I am left with a rather nagging feeling that it is hard to imagine that DE had capacity to consent to sex if he lacked capacity to make decisions about contraception (understanding the potential negative consequences of sexual intercourse surely has to incorporate the persons ability to militiate against such consequences); and that perhaps a DE-focussed decision was made that declaring that he did not have capacity to consent to sex was going to have a massively detrimental impact on his life.
Although a declaration that a person can’t consent to an operation doesn’t mean that one progresses inexorably towards the operation being directed – a best interests decision needs to be taken, the same is not true of a consent to sexual intercourse. Almost any capacity decision is followed by a best interests decision of what is best for the person. Almost any.
Save this one. The Court of Protection cannot declare that a person lacks capacity to consent to sexual intercourse, but that nonetheless a sexual relationship continuing or recommencing is in his best interests. Once that declaration is made, sex is off the agenda. And that clearly wasn’t in his best interests.
So I have a slight suspicion that there was an element of Judge Fudge on the contraception point, in order that DE and PQ could enjoy their relationship without producing further children (it being clear that neither of them wished to do so, but didn’t have the wherewithal to make sure that didn’t happen). I am not critical in the slightest if that did happen, I think it was the right call for DE.