Mr & Mrs Z v Kent County Council



Judge: HHJ Lazarus

Citation: [2018] EWFC B65

Summary

This case concerned a wide range of issues in the context of family proceedings which had gone badly wrong, of which for present purposes the most relevant is the issue of litigation capacity.  HHJ Lazarus took the opportunity to conduct a detailed review of how this issue should be considered and approach.  She noted that the presumption of capacity was not included in the MCA to obviate examination of whether a party to proceedings lacked capacity, and that it could not have been Parliament’s intention to place a vulnerable person in danger of their lack of capacity being overlooked at the expense of their rights by a slack reliance on the presumption.   The judge considered the relevant guidance and caselaw and noted that while it was usually the case that medical evidence as to incapacity would be required, if it was not possible to obtain an assessment (for example because the party refused to participate), then the court would have to do the best it could on the evidence available to it:

  • t) Such a determination could be based on a careful review of the other relevant material that may be available, such as a report from a clinician who knows the party’s condition well enough to report without interviewing the party (if available and appropriate), other medical records, accounts of family members, accounts of the social worker or other agency workers who may be supporting the parent, and occasionally direct evidence from a parent.
  • u) Any such finding made without expert assessment evidence that leads to a declaration of protected party status due to lack of litigation capacity could always be reviewed upon expert evidence being obtained to suggest that the finding was incorrect, and by ensuring that the question of assessment is regularly revisited with the protected party by their litigation friend, their solicitor and the court.

In the particular case, there had been a failure to assess or determine the issue of the mother’s capacity to conduct the proceedings despite her known personality disorder and alcohol misuse, which had led ultimately to the wrong decisions being made for the child.

Having rehearsed the case-law, which she correctly identified as containing some internal tensions, HHJ Lazarus set out what she considered to be obviously impermissible steps that could be found from those cases, namely:

  • failure to grasp the nettle fully and early,
  • ignoring information or evidence that a party may lack capacity,
  • purporting to ‘adopt’ the Presumption of Capacity in circumstances where capacity has been questioned,
  • making directions addressing the capacity issue, but discharging them or failing to comply with them and thereby leaving the issue inadequately addressed,
  • failing to obtain evidence (expert or otherwise) relevant to capacity,
  • use of ‘unless’ orders,
  • similarly, using personal service or ‘warning notices’ on that party,
  • relying on non-engagement by that party either with assessments or the proceedings,
  • proceeding with any substantive directions, let alone making final orders, in the absence of adequate enquiry and proper determination of the capacity issue,
  • treating a party as having provided consent to any step, let alone a grave and possibly irrevocable final step, where capacity has been questioned but the issue not determined.

Comment

Although made in the context of family proceedings, the observations of HHJ Lazarus are of wider application, in any proceedings where it becomes clear that there may be an issue as to one party’s capacity to conduct them.  At that point, the court is into difficult territory, trying to navigate a path which secures competing rights.  Those rights are, importantly, competing from the perspective of the person concerned, including balancing the right not to be deprived of legal capacity without a proper process against the right not to have substantive decisions taken in proceedings they cannot, in truth, conduct.  The observations made by HHJ Lazarus are useful in identifying what steps cannot be taken at that stage, even if they leave open the question of what can be done.

CategoryMental capacity - Litigation, Family (public law) Date

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