Neary, Hillingdon and Best Interests Assessments


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The judgement in the case of Stephen Neary was published yesterday. I  held off commenting about the case when it first hit the press because sometimes I feel there is a lack of detail and an overwhelming presence of misunderstanding in relation to reporting about the Court of Protection and the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLs).

Now that the Court has made it’s decision and published it’s judgement, I feel a little better able to comment and assess.

I haven’t read the judgement in great detail and have no doubt that I’ll come back to this over the weekend  but I wanted to share and explore some of my initial thoughts about it.

Steven  Neary is a man who is autistic and who was living with his father, Mark,  in the London Borough of Hillingdon. He was receiving extensive support from the local adult services department. Steven was placed in respite care and the borough felt that it was in his best interests to remain at the support unit where he was receiving respite care although his father wanted him to return home. A number of deprivation of liberty orders were made for the period between April to December 2010, which enabled Hillingdon to keep Steven at the support unit (the council claimed that between January and April Steven’s father consented and/or he was not being ‘deprived of his liberty).

The Court found against the Council that Steven had been unlawfully detained by the council between January and December 2010 and had been deprived of his liberty for the entire time with the ‘authorisations’ that the council had granted themselves being deemed to be ‘invalid’.

The other points that the judgement picks up are that the first referral to an IMCA (Independent Mental Capacity Advocate) came in October 2010 and that the matter was only referred to the Court of Protection in October – both of which denied a speedier resolution to this period of detention for Steven.

There are some interesting and useful statements which are given in the judgement.

Firstly the judge condemns Hillingdon for using the DoLs to impose their decisions on the family which goes against the spirit of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 saying

The DOL scheme is an important safeguard against arbitrary detention. Where stringent conditions are met, it allows a managing authority to deprive a person of liberty at a particular place. It is not to be used by a local authority as a means of getting its own way on the question of whether it is in the person’s best interests to be in the place at all. Using the DOL regime in that way turns the spirit of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 on its head, with a code designed to protect the liberty of vulnerable people being used instead as an instrument of confinement. In this case, far from being a safeguard, the way in which the DOL process was used masked the real deprivation of liberty, which was the refusal to allow Steven to go home.

And both crucially and importantly for Supervisory Bodies (who are the PCTs and the Local Authorities) comes this guidance

The granting of DOL standard authorisations is a matter for the local authority in its role as a supervisory body. The responsibilities of a supervisory body, correctly understood, require it to scrutinise the assessment it receives with independence and a degree of care that is appropriate to the seriousness of the decision and to the circumstances of the individual case that are or should be known to it. Where, as here, a supervisory body grants authorisations on the basis of perfunctory scrutiny of superficial best interests assessments, it cannot expect the authorisations to be legally valid.

So this places a consideration on the decision makers or ‘signatories’ at the supervisory bodies to do more than sign. My assumption, as a Best Interests Assessor was that the assessments I send to a Supervisory Body were actually discussed between ‘decision-makers’. Maybe I’m hopelessly naive but I always assumed my assessments were not automatically ‘signed off’.

One of the things I have picked out from the reading through the judgement is the lack of experience and understanding about the DoLs procedure that seemed to be widespread. The judgement explains

He (Mr Neary)then began a dialogue with the social worker about this, which was a learning experience for them both, as neither had any experience of the procedures

It’s a shame that there is so little experience of the procedures by professionals and it indicates (although perhaps I am reading too much into this sentence) the broader misunderstandings that are created by lack of knowledge of new processes.

Later the first Best Interests Assessment recommends

involving an Independent Mental Capacity Advocate (IMCA). The report recommended that four conditions be attached to the authorisation, among them: “(1) Consideration to be given to the most appropriate place in which to provide ongoing care to meet [Steven’s] needs, (2) Consideration be given to referral to IMCA services to act as an independent advocate for [Steven].”

And of this first Best Interest Assessment, the judge says

The standard form used for the report specifically states: “You must consider whether any care or treatment the person needs can be provided effectively in a way that is less restrictive of their rights and freedom of action.” and makes reference to paragraph 4.61 of the DOL safeguards Code of Practice, which refers to the question of “what other care options there are which could avoid a deprivation of liberty”. It would not be right to be unduly critical of her report, particularly as it was the first DOL best interests assessment she had undertaken. She flagged up what became known during the hearing as “the elephant in the room”, which was whether Steven should be at the support unit at all. However, she did not follow up on this. She does not refer to the alternative of a return home as being an obviously less restrictive alternative. Nor does she refer to Steven’s unhappiness at being in the support unit. Nor did she propose an application to court as a condition of the authorisation.

For me, as a Best Interests Assessor these points are crucial in ensuring that least restrictive options remain at the forefront during my assessments.

Of the Second Best Interests Assessment, the judge is more scathing.

The judgement indicates that in June 2010 (as the first DoL was authorised for three months)

A different best interests assessor (BIA2) consulted Mr Neary . He describes her telephoning him at lunchtime for 10 minutes, saying that she had to file her report by 3 p.m.

It’s hardly a full and extensive discussion and for a standard authorisation of a Deprivation of Liberty there is a fairly generous time scale (21 days) allowed to complete assessments – it certainly shouldn’t need to be done in such haste.

In fact this is what the judge says about the report

I have not heard evidence from BIA2, but I have read her assessment. She recommends a three month period for deprivation of liberty. Substantial parts of her short report are cut and pasted from the previous best interests report. She appears to have had cursory contact with Steven on 21 June, the date her report was filed (even though it is unaccountably signed on 18 June). No reference is made to his wishes and feelings. No reference is made to Mr Neary ‘s opposition to the placement. On the contrary, the following appears: “I understand from my conversation with Mr M Neary  that he believes the current care plan is positively supporting his son and his transitional programme.” No reference is made to the possibility of a placement at home alleviating the need for a deprivation of liberty. The recommendation is made for two conditions to be attached, one of which suggests that the three outstanding risk assessments for Steven’s activities should be completed within eight weeks (in the context of a three-month deprivation recommendation). No reference is made to the absence of an IMCA, despite the condition in the previous standard authorisation, nor to the Court of Protection, despite the references in the previous assessment. I regret to say that the report has all the hallmarks of a document completed in a hurry.

Of the third authorisation, the judge notes

On 20 September, the third standard authorisation was granted by the Director for a period of two months. The authorisation makes no reference to Steven’s wishes or those of his father, nor to the possibility that deprivation of liberty would not be involved if he was at home. The purpose of the standard authorisation is described as being for Steven to receive a structured programme to contain his behaviour. Conditions were attached requiring risk assessments of all venues before Steven could undertake activities outside the unit. Consideration was to be given to an appropriate long-term placement.

The best interests assessment, by a third assessor, BIA3, refers to Mr Neary‘s disagreement with the placement and recommends recourse to the Court of Protection as a condition. BIA3 also noted that an IMCA had been requested.

These issues were addressed far too late. Steven returned home in December following a court order.

So where does this leave the DoLs process. I think some of the more useful parts of the judgement relate to an explanation of why Steven was being deprived of his liberty (in legal terms) and what amounts to a deprivation of liberty. We (Best Interests Assessors) have to rely on case law to help us pick together when a deprivation is occurring so it is useful to have further guidance.

The judge also states that the supervisory body should consider further the contents of the assessments it receives rather than just rubber-stamping them.

Although the framework of the Act requires the supervising body to commission a number of paper assessments before granting a standard authorisation, the best interests assessment is anything but a routine piece of paperwork. Properly viewed, it should be seen as a cornerstone of the protection that the DOL safeguards offer to people facing deprivation of liberty if they are to be effective as safeguards at all.

The corollary of this, in my view, is that the supervisory body that receives the best interests assessment must actively supervise the process by scrutinising the assessment with independence and with a degree of care that is appropriate to the seriousness of the decision and the circumstances of the individual case that are or should be known to it.

Paragraph 50 provides that a supervisory body must give a standard authorisation if all assessments are positive. This obligation must be read in the light of the overall scheme of the schedule, which cannot be to require the supervisory body to grant an authorisation where it is not or should not be satisfied that the best interests assessment is a thorough piece of work that adequately analyses the four necessary conditions.

I also rely on the obvious fact that the intention of paragraph 50 cannot be to require a supervisory body to give an authorisation simply because the best interests assessment makes a positive recommendation, whatever the quality of the work disclosed in the assessment. On behalf of Hillingdon, it was accepted for the sake of argument that it would not be bound by an assessment that was in effect so poor as to be “a joke”, so it follows that paragraph 50 cannot be read as if it simply required a positive answer without cogent reasoning. Hillingdon has however suggested that a supervisory body is bound to act upon any best interests assessment that is not grossly and obviously defective.

Against this, the EHRC and the Official Solicitor argue that where a supervisory body knows or ought to know that a best interests assessment is inadequate, it is not obliged to follow the recommendation. On the contrary it is obliged to take all necessary steps to remedy the inadequacy, and if necessary bring the deprivation of liberty to an end, including by conducting a review under Part 8 or by applying to the court. This is in my view a correct statement of the law. The suggestion that the supervisory body is bound to act on any assessment that is not grossly and obviously defective sets the standard too low. It supposes an essentially passive supervisory body. This would not meet the objectives of the Act and would not provide effective protection against breaches of Article 5.

The nature of this process for supervisory bodies is not likely to be very burdensome, given the relatively small number of cases, and if it were it would be fully warranted to ensure that the right outcomes are reached for people who are likely to be the most vulnerable service users. It should never be a rubberstamping process. A standard authorisation has the same effect as a court order and there is no reason why it should receive lesser scrutiny.

For me, this is one of the key points (and the reason I’ve quoted so much of the judgement text). It is likely to strike at the heart of the supervisory bodies and the way they authorise deprivation of liberty safeguards. And good, I say, they are senior managers and earn enough money to be able to take responsibility for the tough decisions that are in place ‘on the ground’.

The other issues that are raised regarding the lack of appeal process and the failure to appoint an IMCA and refer to the Court of Protection more speedily are also crucial in the judgement but for me as a Best Interests Assessor there are number of very useful reminders about the need to display independence in my role as an assessor and to advocate for myself in demanding the time in a working day to produce a good quality piece of work worthy of the difficult decisions that are to be made.

Mostly though, I just wish we had more open systems so that we can better understand the views and improve of knowledge regarding the expectations of what is an over-complicated and flawed system.

As a Best Interests Assessor (and an AMHP) I do not feel beholden to do what is best for my employer. In fact, sometimes I take an almost subversive amount of pride in taking a more independent view and opposing some management decisions by applying the law. However, I understand that I have a certain amount of confidence and bloody-mindedness in my approach.

Perhaps if any changes in the system are made (although I don’t think they will be) a further consideration of independence of the Best Interests Assessor will be considered. I have done Best Interests Assessments for my own borough and for other boroughs when I’ve been ‘loaned’ out and I genuinely feel it is less pressured and easier to be ‘independent’ when you are assessing from a ‘wider view’ of not being employed by that borough. Of course, I hope that I always remain independent but I think it would add a further element of scrutiny.

I have no doubt I’ll come back to this case and this judgement. There’s a lot to get through and many issues that I didn’t pick up on. It emphasises the importance of some of the decisions we make and the importance of being personally responsible for the reports I write as a professional.

And for anyone not following Stuart Sorensen’s series of posts about the European Convention on Human Rights on his blog – I’d highly recommend visiting, reading and learning. I have learnt much from them.

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