In defence of Article 5 and the right to liberty – North Yorks CC v MAG

by stevebroach

This post is about a judgment of the Court of Protection which shows the continued force of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights in protecting disabled people’s fundamental rights.

Article 5 protects the right to liberty. As most people reading this blog will be aware, the Supreme Court handed down a judgment known as ‘Cheshire West’ last year which made clear that disabled people have the same right to liberty as the rest of the population. As a result, if a person is subject to continuous supervision and control and is not free to leave their accommodation, there will be a deprivation of liberty which has to be approved and justified to avoid a breach of Article 5.

The problem comes with the tortuous way the relevant authorities have decided to manage the requirement to approve deprivations of liberty for disabled people. For example the ‘deprivation of liberty safeguards’ (DoLS) are almost universally disliked. The recent Law Commission consultation on a new system said there was a ‘compelling case’ for replacing them, not least because they are ‘perceived to be overly technical and legalised’ and ‘not meaningful for disabled people and their families or carers’ (para 2.41).

One of the most welcome aspects of the Law Commission’s proposals for a replacement system is the focus on disabled people’s wider human rights, in particular the rights protected by Article 8 ECHR – the right to respect for private life, family life and the home. Article 8 is the space where considerations of vital issues like human dignity often come into play. However Article 8 is a ‘qualified’ right – which means that considerations like the financial resources of the state are relevant when the courts consider how far public bodies have to go to make Article 8 rights real. This is a major reason why Mrs McDonald’s challenge to the decision that her nighttime care should be replaced with incontinence pads failed in the European Court of Human Rights – once the local authority got the process right and completed the required reassessment, the court was not prepared to find a breach of Article 8 because it is generally up to the state how public funds are allocated.

Article 5 ECHR is different however. The right to liberty is absolute – it can only be interfered with for the reasons set out in Article 5. The state is not entitled to deprive a person of their liberty simply because it would cost less than to meet their needs in a less restrictive way.

The difference this makes is played out in North Yorkshire County Council v MAG and others [2015] EWCOP 64, a judgment handed down this summer (13 July 2015). The issue in the case was whether the Court of Protection should authorise the deprivation of liberty which resulted from the care arrangements for a 34 year old severely disabled man, MAG. The judgment makes clear that:

  • MAG had been in his accommodation for around 9 years, since 2006
  • The property was too small for him to use his wheelchair indoors, so he had to move around by crawling and pulling himself along the floor
  • Because the property only had one bedroom it was too small for sleep-in staff, who would have been less intrusive for MAG
  • The property had no outside space, so when MAG was not taken out he was confined indoors

The local authority appears to have accepted that a move would be desirable for MAG (see para 16 of the judgment), but the Judge characterised its case as follows (para 12): ‘this case has been before the court for four years during which time it has been required by the Official Solicitor to identify alternative options which it says its search has proved are simply not available’. On this basis the local authority sought final declarations, including approval of the resulting deprivation of liberty for MAG.

Importantly in my view, the Judge visited MAG in the property. His findings from the visit were recorded at para 20 of the judgment:

20 The problem is that MAG’s flat, at which I visited him on 20 February 2015, is so small that his wheelchair cannot be used indoors. The corridor leading from the bedroom to the lounge and kitchen is too narrow to move a wheelchair into those rooms. He moves around the flat on his bottom and using his hands and knees. This has resulted in him sustaining painful bursitis in both knees and he has calluses to his knees and ankles. Ms Hutchinson [learning disability nurse and best interests assessor] advised that MAG’s current property does not meet his needs and that he should be able to live in a property which ensures he can live a life with dignity and comfort and which does not cause him physical or emotional harm.

Also importantly, MAG’s living arrangements were ‘supported living’, which falls outside the scope of the DoLS. As such, the only way the local authority could avoid a breach of Article 5 was to have the deprivation of liberty authorised by the Court of Protection, see para 21.

The local authority’s position was clearly set out at paras 22-23 of the judgment:

22 NYCC accepts that the current placement involves a deprivation of liberty and that there is no immediate alternative residential option. It seeks the authorisation of the court for MAG’s continued deprivation of liberty on the basis that it is justified as a result of his condition which renders the restrictions proportionate and necessary. NYCC says that the issues raised by the expert, Christine Hutchinson, and the Official Solicitor relate to whether the outcome could be achieved in a less restrictive manner but that there are no less restrictive options available. Where it has been possible to make adjustments to achieve a less restrictive outcome, such as time spent in the community, this has been done.

23 NYCC says that on the basis that the position is clear and the court does not have the jurisdiction to require it to find another property which would not ordinarily be available to MAG, all steps that he could take if he did not lack capacity, have been taken by it. The accommodation at the Tenancy and his care package which mean that he is not permitted to leave unaccompanied and is under continuous supervision and control, have the effect of depriving MAG of his liberty. The outcome cannot be achieved in a less restrictive way and the restrictions in place are necessary and proportionate. On that basis the deprivation of liberty should be authorised by the court.

So the local authority’s case was clear – there’s nothing else available, so the Court should authorise MAG being deprived of his liberty in his accommodation notwithstanding its flaws.

The Official Solicitor, representing MAG, did not accept this. His first argument was recorded by the Judge as follows (para 28): ‘The Official Solicitor makes the point that the reference in Re MN to the ability of the Court of Protection to explore the care plan put forward by a public authority and the inability of the Court to compel a public authority to agree to a care plan which it is not willing to implement does not apply when the issue is the right to liberty under Article 5. I accept that analysis.’

This is really important – because the general rule (being confirmed by the Court of Appeal in Re MN) is that the Court of Protection cannot require a public authority to act in a particular way. The Judge here accepted the Official Solicitor’s submission that this rule does not apply when what is at stake is the right to liberty under Article 5.

The Official Solicitor’s position was that the ‘narrow corridors, lack of outdoor space, lack of privacy and lack of a wheelchair (when his needed repair and no replacement was made available) amount to a disproportionate deprivation of liberty in this case’ (para 33).

The Judge made two important findings at paras 35-36:

35 I accept the Official Solicitor’s submission that the authorities in this case were not willing to initiate a search for alternative accommodation unless and until the Court decided that it was in MAG’s best interests to move in spite of the fact that the Commissioners had decided in 2013 that it was in his best interests to move to a less restrictive environment.

36 I accept that there was culpable delay on the part of NYCC in finding a less restrictive property…

The Judge’s final decision was relatively short and for ease of reference I set it out in full below:

Decision
37 On behalf of MAG the Official Solicitor outlines the decision I have to make as being whether the interim authorisation ought to be continued in light of what he characterises as the overly restrictive intensity of MAG’s deprivation of liberty. NYCC and the CCG require the authority of the Court lawfully to deprive MAG of his liberty in order to act compatibly with Article 5. There is no dispute that there is a deprivation of liberty in this case.

38 I accept the Official Solicitor’s submission that the central issue is not whether MAG’s confinement is properly justified by the fact that no alternative accommodation is available. It is whether, as set out in the closing submissions on behalf of MAG, ‘…the persistence of his unsoundness of mind justifies the validity of his continued deprivation of liberty: Re X [2014]
EWCOP 25 , para 14; KC v Poland (Application no. 31199/12), para 70. In this regard it is crucial to note the Strasbourg Court’s view in Stanev v Bulgaria (2012) 55 EHRR 22 para 153:“… the objective need for accommodation and social assistance must not automatically lead to the imposition of measures involving deprivation of liberty.”’

39 I accept the submission on behalf of MAG that it is the authority’s failure in its attitude towards the search for less restrictive accommodation which has caused significant delay and lengthened these proceedings. I am urged by the Official Solicitor not to authorise this deprivation of liberty because it is unwarranted because the intensity of the measures and in particular those which result from the environmental features of the property are not justified and proportionate. MAG
has remained at the Tenancy for nine years and been subject to a deprivation of liberty there. He has no choice but to mobilise on his hands and knees which has caused physical problems including Bursitis and a recurring fungal infection in his thigh. He does not have access to suitable outdoor space and sleeping night support is not possible in the absence of a second bedroom. The only private space he has is his own bedroom.

40 On behalf of the CCG I am urged not to refuse the authorisation on the basis that if I do so there will be a lack of clarity about MAG’s position and that of NYCC in relation to its property search. In response it is argued on behalf of MAG that not to continue the interim authorisation will result in a substantive breach of Article 5 which will ensure that proactive steps are taken by the statutory authorities to locate a less restrictive living environment.

41 I have considered the submissions of the parties and in this case I have the benefit of having seen MAG at the Tenancy. As I have indicated already, I accept the submissions of the Official Solicitor in relation to the issues with the current accommodation and on that basis I consider that I cannot endorse a care regime which risks breaching MAG’s right to liberty. This may be all that is available at present but I am not satisfied that NYCC has taken the steps necessary to ensure
that there is no breach of its obligations. I am aware of the steps which have been taken recently. However, MAG’s needs were identified by the assessment in 2006. It is clear that the Tenancy does not meet those needs and that should have been clear when the property was identified by GC in 2006. In 2013 the Commissioners accepted a move would be in MAG’s best interests and would be less restrictive. This is a question of MAG’s liberty and I do not accept that I can
authorise the deprivation of that liberty on the basis that nothing else is available. He has been in this unsatisfactory situation for a prolonged period. NYCC has been extremely slow to accept its responsibilities in relation to rehousing him. These proceedings started in 2011 and it was not until 2 August 2013 that it accepted it owed a duty in this respect.

42 Refusing the authorisation sought means that NYCC must take the steps necessary to ensure that there is no breach. In all the circumstances, I am not satisfied that I should make the declaration sought by the local authority and I will not authorise the deprivation of liberty in its current form.

Some observations:

  1. The Judge (in my view correctly) highlighted what was said in the Stanev case, that ‘the objective need for accommodation and social assistance must not automatically lead to the imposition of measures involving deprivation of liberty’.
  2. As such the real issue was not, as the local authority (and CCG) said, the fact that there was nothing else available. The issue was whether the deprivation of liberty caused by MAG’s living arrangements could be justified.
  3. The ‘failure’ in the local authority’s ‘attitude’ in searching for less restrictive accommodation was clearly central to the Judge’s decision – see para 39.
  4. The Official Solicitor expressly argued that the effect of the Court refusing to authorise the deprivation of liberty would be to ‘ensure that proactive steps are taken by the statutory authorities to locate a less restrictive living environment’ – in other words to force them to move MAG as quickly as possible to bring the breach of Article 5 to an end (see para 40).
  5. The Judge’s ultimate conclusion (para 41) was as follows: ‘I consider that I cannot endorse a care regime which risks breaching MAG’s right to liberty. This may be all that is available at present but I am not satisfied that NYCC has taken the steps necessary to ensure that there is no breach of its obligations.’
  6. The Judge agreed with the Official Solicitor (para 42) that ‘Refusing the authorisation sought means that NYCC must take the steps necessary to ensure that there is no breach’.

In my view the approach of the Court in this case is not without its problems. Giving such weight to the local authority’s failure to move MAG raises the question of how much effort is required before the Court would authorise a deprivation of liberty in arrangements which were less than suitable for the disabled person.

However what this case does is show that Article 5 offers real protections for disabled people, the effect of which can go beyond the qualified requirements of Article 8. It is important that whatever new scheme ultimately replaces the DoLS recognises this – something that no doubt the Law Commission have well in mind.

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