Judge: Cobb J
Citation:  EWCOP 9
In this significant case, Cobb J had to decide two questions in relation to a 39 year old Muslim man with profound learning disabilities, namely whether it was in his best interests (1) to fast during the daylight hours of Ramadan; and (2) for his axillary (i.e. underarm) and pubic hair to be trimmed, in accordance with Islamic cultural and religious practice insofar as it was safe and reasonable to do so.
IH spent the first 35 years of his life in a Punjabi speaking home within a Muslim community in West Yorkshire before moving to a supported living placement arranged by his local authority and funded by the CCG. His parents were of the Sunni denomination of Islam, and were described in the court papers as ‘devout’. When IH was living at home, he participated in, to the extent he was able, and was certainly exposed to the routine religious practices and observances of the family. Cobb J accepted the expert evidence of the psychiatric expert, Dr. Carpenter, “that he would have had no real appreciation of the religious significance of these rituals even if he enjoyed the regularity with which they were performed, and appreciated an increasing familiarity with them.” IH had never been expected to fast during Ramadan. His father had personally shaved his pubic and axillary hair whilst he was living at home and for one year beyond (i.e. until 2014).
According to the evidence summarised by Cobb J, IH’s impairments meant that he did not have any understanding of religious matters nor of the consequences of hair removal or fasting, nor was he capable of meaningful communication over abstract issues.
The local authority recognised the importance of facilitating the religious observances even of those who lack capacity. They provided, for instance, IH with a Halal diet even though IH himself would not know that the food he ate was Halal, or the significance of the source and/or preparation of the food. As an aspect of this, they decided in 2015 (apparently in agreement with TH) that staff members would carry out the “hair removal” on IH every two weeks though this in fact did not happen.
IH, through the Official Solicitor, made the application for a declaration that it was not in his best interests to fast during Ramadan. His father, TH, applied for a declaration in relation to the trimming/removal of his hair. This was initially couched on the basis that this was a religious duty, although ultimately this ended up being refined into the version set out at the outset.
Although there was no dispute as to IH’s lack of capacity, Cobb J outlined the information relevant to the two decisions in terms which are of more general use.
In order to have capacity to make the decision to fast for Ramadan, Cobb J held a person would be expected to understand (and presumably also retain, use and weigh):
Trimming/removal of pubic or axillary hair
To have the capacity to make a decision in relation to the trimming or removal of pubic or axillary hair for religious or cultural reasons, Cobb J held that a person would be expected to be able to understand:
The requirements of Islam
Cobb J expressly directed himself by reference to the Supreme Court’s guidance as to the meaning of best interests in Aintree, and heard from a lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies (Dr Mansur Ali, from Cardiff University) so as to be able to gain a true picture of the importance of the place of fasting and the trimming/removal of pubic/axillary hair for IH.
Cobb J outlined in some detail what he had been advised by Dr Ali:
Islamic religious observance for those without capacity.
Fasting in Ramadan
i) Fasting during the daylight hours of Ramadan is one of the Qur’anically mandated obligations for all Muslims who are legally competent, and who are not exempt. Certain groups are exempt from fasting; they include the incapacitous, minors, the ill, pregnant women, those who are travelling. Those who are exempt are not morally culpable for not keeping the daylight fast.
Trimming or shaving of pubic and axillary hair
ii) Cleaning pubic or axillary hair is a religiously sanctioned practice deemed in Islam to be a normal human ‘right’ (‘fitrah’);
iii) The rationale is founded in a quest for ritual purity and cleanliness; (the aphorism ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ is of course familiar to many religions);
iv) The removal of pubic and axillary hair for the legally competent Muslim is ‘mustahab’ or ‘recommended practice’; while it is not obligatory (‘wajib’) it would be viewed as a ‘minor sin’ if unattended (see  above);
v) As IH does not have ‘legal competence’ it is not even recommended practice for him (see  above); there is no obligation on his carers to carry out the removal of IH’s pubic or axillary hair, and his religious rights are not being violated by not attending to this;
vi) It is highly recommended and praiseworthy for carers (of whatever religion) to shave or shorten a patient’s pubic or axillary hair, in the same way as it is for them to assist the incapacitous in other routine care tasks;
vii) There are differences of opinion between Islamic commentators as to the preferred manner of hair removal; any method would be deemed acceptable;
viii) The time limit within which the hair needs to be cleaned or trimmed or removed is also a matter of assorted opinion, though the majority of commentators favour a 40-day limit;
ix) While it would be not permissible for a competent Muslim to expose their genitals, it would not be contrary to the Shari’a for a Muslim without capacity who requires assistance with his care, for his carers to clean his genitals or shave them; that said, “carers must be sensitive that the client’s dignity is not violated”;
x) ‘No hurt no harm’ is a cardinal principle of Islamic bioethics; avoidance of harm has priority over the pursuit of a benefit of equal or lesser worth. Therefore it would be wrong to create a situation in which observance of Islamic custom would, or would be likely to, cause harm to the person (i.e. IH) or his carers; if there is a risk of harm, then this principle would absolve even the capacitated person from performing an obligatory requirement.
Best interests: fasting
It was uncontentious that it was not in IH’s best interests to fast:
Best interests: trimming/removal of pubic/axillary hair
Cobb J started with some important general observations concerning religion and disability:
As noted above, TH initially proceeded on the basis that there was a duty to remove public/axillary hair. However, Cobb J made clear that there was in fact no such duty or obligation on a person who lacks capacity (‘legal competence’ in Islam) to trim or shave his or her pubic and axillary hair, or on his carer to do so for them. He emphasised that IH, himself, derived no religious ‘benefit’ by having the procedure undertaken, as he would not understand its religious significance. He also noted that it was of no consequence to him, in the consideration of these facts, that the “carers may be blessed in the eyes of Islam in undertaking a ‘praiseworthy’ activity by trimming the hair; their interests are not my concern.”
Into the balance, Cobb J put the following further factors:
Cobb J concluded:
Cobb J was at pains to inform himself of the actual requirements of Islam, as opposed to the requirements that were (mis)understood by IH’s social workers and, it appears, to some extent by TH himself. In so doing, and in calling upon the expertise of a cultural expert, he was in unusual, but not unprecedented territory. Similar expertise seems to have been called upon (albeit referred to in passing) in A Local Authority v ED & others  EWCOP 3069, concerning an apparent “duty” to remove the pubic hair of a Muslim woman, with an exception for the incapacitous. The court also called upon a cultural expert in Re BB, in which the court heard from a cultural expert on the implications of the marriage of a Banglad\eshi woman and the ways in which it might be brought to an end, albeit in that case finding that the expert provided no actual assistance.
As in so many other of the new wave of Aintree-compliant cases now being determined, this case serves as a useful test to see whether applying the CRPD would produce a different substantive answer (and, if is contended that it would, on what basis). For our part, it seems the very model of a decision complying with Article 12(4) CRPD, constructed from the person outwards and respecting not just the best interpretation of their will and preferences but also their rights (noting, in this, that to inflict hair removal on an individual with disabilities in potentially stressful circumstances in the name of a – projected – religious belief could well constitute both violence and abuse for purposes of Article 16 CRPD). It therefore serves, we suggest, as evidence that notwithstanding the toxic brand of ‘best interests’ for CRPD purposes, the model of decision-making under the MCA 2005 is capable of producing outcomes that are CRPD-compliant. The fact, in practice, it can all too often fail to do so is a significant factor underpinning the proposed amendments to s.4 MCA suggested by the Law Commission.
We do note one passing comment, though. At paragraph 38, Cobb J noted that it was “progressive” Islamic belief that as an incapacitous person IH was exempt from observing the Islam rituals because he was already in a heightened state of spirituality. This raises the question of whether (a) there is another school of Islamic belief and, if so, what it provides; and (b) more generally, whether – and how – the courts will be required to adjudicate between different schools of belief, whether within Islam or within other faith structures. Such would be to enter into very deep waters indeed.
 In fact, religion is specifically mentioned in preamble (p) to the CRPD as regards the position of persons with disabilities who are also subject to discrimination on the basis of religion. Further, the CRPD is intended to ensure with persons with disabilities are entitled to enjoy “all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities without discrimination of any kind on the basis of disability” (Article 4), and the equivalent to Article 9 ECHR is to be found in Article 18 of both the UN Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
 We note in this regard the specific references to the Law Commission’s work in the response by the Office of the Disability Issues to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to the list of issues identified by the Committee ahead of its inspection of the UK later this year (see para 49). Adrian Ward will consider this – otherwise distinctly underwhelming – response further from a Scottish perspective in the next issue.