I was gripped by the Britney Spears saga. This phenomenally successful pop star was deemed to lack capacity in relation to most aspects of her life and finances for more than 13 years allowing her father full control over her considerable fortune and her person and critically, she was unable to object until the “Free Britney” movement highlighted the rampant injustice of the situation. Only then was she was permitted to appoint her own lawyer and “freed”. In this we consider briefly the similarities and differences between the US conservatorship and the UK deputyship.
Britney’s situation has thrown a glaring light on conservatorships and the potential for abuse. A number of famous people have had conservatorships – often temporary and some of their own volition. Randy Meisner (The Eagles) requested a conservatorship after the sudden death of his wife. Mickey Rooney (actor) had one imposed on account of being the subject of horrible physical and financial abuse from his 8th wife and her son. Joni Mitchell (singer songwriter) had a temporary conservatorship after a severe brain aneurysm until she recovered. As stated in the NY Times on 22 June 2021,
Experts say conservatorships should prioritize the wishes of the conservatee and help them regain their independence. The arrangements are supposed to be a last resort for people who cannot take care of their basic needs, such as those with significant disabilities or older people with dementia, yet Ms. Spears has been able to perform and profit for more than a decade.
Basics of US Conservatorships
Conservatorships, known in many states as guardianship, are put in place for people who are significantly disabled by mental illness, elderly individuals who lack mental capacity due to medical conditions such as dementia, or individuals with developmental disabilities who lack the capacity to manage their own affairs. They are often temporary. In typical conservatorship proceedings, an allegedly mentally incapacitated person is evaluated by a qualified physician or psychiatrist who prepares a report documenting the person’s mental capacity that is provided to the court and may be used as evidence. The court must be satisfied that the individual must be unable to make decisions regarding food, clothing, shelter or medical decisions and/or they must be unable to manage financial affairs or resist undue influence. For conservatorships of the person (managing all aspects of daily life and medical care as opposed to finance) the bar is apparently a high one with these being reserved for those most seriously ill. There is also a power to grant limited conservatorships by which the person subject to it can still make some decisions for themselves e.g., where to live. Britney Spears was subject to both types and for a period of 13 years.
A Local Authority (Respondent) v JB (by his Litigation Friend, the Official Solicitor) (Appellant) – UKSC 2020/0133 Court of Appeal (Civil Division)
The Supreme Court has upheld the Court of Appeal’s decision that to have capacity to engage in sexual relations, a person needs to be able to understand that their sexual partner must have the capacity to consent to the sexual activity and must, in fact, consent before and during the sexual activity.
The appellant, JB, is a 37 year-old single man with a complex diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder combined with impaired cognition. He has a complex diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder (Asperger’s syndrome) combined with impaired cognition as a result of suffering significant brain damage from epilepsy.
JB has expressed a strong desire to have a girlfriend and engage in sexual relations. Part of JB’s diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome caused him to be
…obsessionally fixated on a particular woman, sending inappropriate sexual messages, inappropriate touching, and targeting the vulnerable
His previous behaviour towards women has led the respondent local authority to conclude that he cannot safely have unsupervised contact with them. JB had argued in the Court of that he had capacity to consent to sexual relations in circumstances where the expert evidence had found that JB understood the mechanics of sexual acts and the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease but that his ‘understanding of consent’ was lacking.
The outcome for JB, if he was found to lack capacity to make decisions in respect of sexual relations, would be that he would be deprived of all sexual relations and that no other person could consent on his behalf (S27(1)(b) Mental Capacity Act 2005(MCA).
JB was successful at first instance in the Court of Protection, but the Court of Appeal reversed the decision and found in favour of the Local Authority. On further appeal to the Supreme Court the court agreed with the Court of Appeal the result being that JB did, in fact, lack capacity.
In this carefully nuanced judgment, the Court of Protection has ruled that although a patient with a chronic eating disorder would in all probability face death she did not gain weight, it would not be in her best interests to continue being subjected to forced feeding inpatient regimes.
AB is a 28 year-old woman who has over many years suffered from anorexia nervosa. She was first diagnosed when she was a teenager of 13 and now has a formal diagnosis of a Severe and Enduring Eating Disorder (‘SEED’).
The NHS Trust and the team of treating clinicians who have been responsible for providing care for AB applied to the COP for declaratory relief pursuant to ss 4 and 15 of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 in these terms: (i) it is in AB’s best interests not to receive any further active treatment for anorexia nervosa; and that (ii) AB lacks capacity to make decisions about treatment relating to anorexia nervosa.
Issues before the Court
Litigation capacity: it was not in issue that AB did have the capacity to instruct her solicitors.
General capacity: this was a more difficult question to be decided under Section 3 of the Mental Capacity Act. The key question was, did she have the mental capacity to make a decision about the specific medical treatment proposed. Roberts J had to decide one way or another on whether she should be tube fed, probably under sedation (otherwise she would remove the tube).
The Trust argued that she did not have this capacity, relying on evidence from AB’s treating psychiatrist Dr B. AB said she did have this capacity.
Best interests: was it in AB’s interests to discontinue any tube feeding? The unanimous professional view of her treating team was that palliative care and no further tube feeding was in her best interests. However, since the decision not to have any further forced feeding was a life-threatening one, the case had to be referred to the Court of Protection.
On 30 July 2020, the Crown Prosecution Service published its performance statistics on sexual violence cases for the year 2019-20, which vindicate long-held concerns about the “damning” number of cases being lost amid “under-resourced” investigations.
The patient in these proceedings was a woman in her thirties (“B”). She suffers a learning disability and epilepsy and has considerable social care needs. She currently lives at home where she spends much of her time watching television. She struggles to manage her personal care and hygiene, and, in the judge’s words, she is “grossly overweight.”
She is prone to confrontational behaviour when challenged, and can be physically aggressive. She is assessed as requiring support to maintain her safety when communicating with others; when she receives information which she does not want to hear, she often becomes dismissive, verbally aggressive and refuses to engage.
This hearing concerned her capacity to litigate in these proceedings, to manage her property, to decide where she resides and her package of care, and to decide with whom she has contact. The main focus of the judgment was on the question that arose in the “A” case , as to the capacity of the patient to use the internet and communicate by social media. Closely related to this was the issue of her capacity to consent to sexual relations. Continue reading →
In this case Cobb J was asked to make declarations under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 regarding a learning disabled man’s capacity to use the internet and social media. (NB on 21 February judgment was also handed down in a similar case on which we will post shortly: B (Capacity: Social Media: Care and Contact)  EWCOP 3.
The rapid development of the internet and proliferation of social media networks over recent years have fundamentally reshaped the way we engage with each other. We spend more time on our digital electronic devices than we do interacting with other humans and naturally this has brought huge benefits in terms of entertainment, communication and gathering information. The social media ‘apps’ available for instant messaging and networking are mostly easy and free to use, amongst them chiefly Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facetime, Skype, Instagram, and Twitter. For people with disabilities the internet and associated social media networks are particularly important:
This case concerned a man, KG, who suffered from the human prion disease CJD. As was explained in the judgment, prion diseases are invariably fatal, neurodegenerative conditions.
They are involve the build-up in the brain and some other organs of a rogue form of a naturally-occurring protein known as the prion protein. The rogue protein results from a change in shape of the normal prion protein. Once formed in the body, these rogue proteins (or prions) recruit and convert more of the normal prion protein into the abnormal form, setting off a kind of chain reaction which leads to a progressive accumulation of the rogue protein.
Wye Valley NHS Trust v B (Rev 1)  EWCOP 60 (28 September 2015) – read judgment
The Court of Protection has recently ruled that a mentally incapacitated adult could refuse a life saving amputation. This is an important judgement that respects an individual’s right to autonomy despite overwhelming medical evidence that it might be in his best interests to override his wishes. The judge declined to define the 73 year old man at the centre of this case by reference to his mental illness, but rather recognised his core quality is his “fierce independence” which, he accepted, was what Mr B saw as under attack. Continue reading →
A healthcare NHS Trust v P & Q  EWCOP (13 March 2015) – read judgment
The Court of Protection has clarified the position on revealing the identity of an incapacitated adult where reporting restrictions apply.
This case concerned a man, P, who as a result of a major cardiac arrest in 2014, has been on life support for the past four months. Medical opinion suggests that he is unlikely ever to recover any level of consciousness, but his family disagrees strongly with this position. The Trust therefore applied to the Court for a declaration in P’s best interests firstly, not to escalate his care and secondly to discontinue some care, inevitably leading to his demise. The trust also applied for a reporting restrictions order. When it sought to serve that application on the Press Association through the Injunctions Alert Service, the family (represented by the second Continue reading →
A Local Authority and M (By his litigation friend via the Official Solicitor) v E and A (Respondents)  EWCOP 33 (11 August 2014) – read judgment
It’s been an interesting week for the extreme fringes of maternal care. The papers report a trial where a mother is being prosecuted for administering toxic levels of medication to her daughter for “conditions that never existed” (as the court heard). Let’s see how that pans out.
And now the Court of Protection has published a ruling by Baker J that a a supporter of the discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield embarked on an odyssey of intrusive remedies and responses to her son’s disorder, fabricating claims of damage from immunisation, earning her membership of what science journalist Brian Deer calls the class of “Wakefield mothers.”
On the face of it, the detailed and lengthy judgment concerns the applicant son’s reaction to the MMR vaccination when it was administered in infancy, and whether it was the cause of his autism and a novel bowel disease, the latter being Wakefield’s brainchild. But at the heart of the case lies the phenomenon that we all used to know as Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy.
UPDATE | The 1COR event which this post previously referred to is now full, so please do not turn up unless you have registered.
Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust v TH and Anor  EWCOP (22 May 2014) – read judgment
In a careful and humane judgment, the Court of Protection has demonstrated that the law is capable of overlooking the stringent requirements of the conditions governing advance directives, and stressed that a “holistic” view of the patients’ wishes and feelings must be adopted, if those point to the withdrawal of life saving treatment.
TH was admitted to the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield earlier this year. His general health revealed a background of known alcohol excess, and he had suffered neurological damage involving seizures and severe depression of consciousness.
G (Adult), Re  (Associated Newspapers Limited intervening) EWCOP 1361 (1 May 2014) – read judgment
Sir James Munby, President of the Court of Protection has ruled that the Daily Mail has no standing to be joined as a party in welfare proceedings in relation to a vulnerable adult who has been declared by the courts as lacking capacity under the Mental Capacity Act.
Background to the application
The court was concerned with a 94 year old woman, a British African Caribbean who lives in her own home in London. G is 94 years old. G has never married and has no children. She has no family living in the UK. She suffers from conditions that have limited her mobility; arthritis, rheumatism, a dislocation of her left knee and carpal tunnel syndrome. She also has high blood pressure and double incontinence. G rarely leaves home now, except for hospital appointments. Continue reading →
Wandsworth Clinical Commissioning Group v IA (By the Official Solicitor as his Litigation Friend)  EWHC 990 (COP) 3 April 2014 – read judgment
This was a case about determination of mental capacity, which both judge and counsel described as “particularly difficult and finely balanced”. The judge was confronted with a great deal of conflicting evidence about the capabilities of the individual in question, but concluded in the end that
His capacity may be seen to have fluctuated in the past; this is in my judgment more likely to be attributable to transient cognitive dysfunction due to metabolic reasons as a result of his physical illness … than the progression of symptoms of his acute brain injury.
IA is a 60 year old man from a professional family and himself a physics graduate who once ran his own business. But his life has been eroded by extremely poor health, Type II Diabetes and related disabilities such as anaemia and partial blindness. Then in 2007 he was the subject of a violent criminal assault, being repeatedly kicked in the head, leaving him with a serious head injury, involving skull fractures, brain haemorrhage and contusions to the right frontal area of the brain. Continue reading →
Mentally incapacitated people have the same rights to liberty as everyone else. If their own living arrangements would amount to a deprivation of liberty of a non-disabled individual then these would also be a deprivation of liberty for the disabled person. So says the Supreme Court, which has ruled that disabled people are entitled to periodic independent checks to ensure that the deprivation of liberty remains justified. Continue reading →
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