by Eilionoir Flynn
Last month, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality last month held its second and final hearing on the proposed Mental Capacity Bill. The hearings focused on proposed amendments to the 2008 Scheme of the Mental Capacity Bill – the only published document to date which gives a concrete outline of what the legislation might look like. The 2008 Scheme has been widely criticised, by the Law Reform Commission, Amnesty International, the Alzheimers Society of Ireland and others, for failing to adequately protect the rights of adults who might become subject to guardianship – and for adopting an inflexible courts-based process for determinations relating to decision-making. Over the course of two hearings on the 22nd and 29th February, the Justice Committee heard a strong message that the thinking on capacity and decision-making, both internationally and nationally, has moved beyond guardianship to focus on enabling people to make their own decisions with support – and even using a support approach to facilitate decision-making where the person’s wishes cannot be determined. A coalition of organisations and individuals across the domains of intellectual disability, mental health, and older people came together to formulate human rights-based principles to underpin the legislation, and a number of these groups made presentations to the Justice Committee.
As I mentioned in a previous post, these hearings coincided with the publication of an issues paper on legal capacity by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammerberg. Lauri Sivonen, advisor to the Commissioner presented the key messages from the issues paper to the Oireachtas Committee at the hearing on the 29th. He stated that “Member States [of the Council of Europe] should also abolish mechanisms for plenary guardianship and full incapacitation in light of the European Court’s jurisprudence and develop supported decision making alternatives and safeguards for these supports.” Mr Sivonen urged Ireland to “take a lead in this field and be an example to other European countries.”
The essence of the proposal set out by the organisations which came together to develop principles for the legislation is that the legislation should address legal capacity i.e. the right to make one’s own decisions as an actor within the law and to have these decisions respected by the law, rather than ‘mental capacity’ which refers more to decision-making ability which varies and fluctuates in each individual. Many organisations involved in the development of these principles support the position as set out in Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that legal capacity is a universal human attribute – regardless of the levels of decision-making ability a person may have at any given point in time.
The principles developed by the organisations (including the Centre for Disability Law and Policy at NUIG, Amnesty International, Alzheimers Society of Ireland, Age Action, National Federation of Voluntary Bodies, Shine, Inclusion Ireland, National Institute for Intellectual Disability at TCD) and discussed at the Committee hearings, adopt a continuum of support approach which could be reflected in the capacity legislation. A ‘Continuum of Supports’ model includes three different levels of support: (i) ‘legally independent’ – where a person has the ability to make decisions with only minimal support e.g. easy to read information. (ii) ‘supported decision-making’ – where a person is supported by someone they trust to make a decision, and (iii)‘facilitated decision-making’ – this is used as a last resort where the person’s will and preferences are not known. Here, a representative has to determine what the person would want, based on what they know about that person and on their best understanding of their wishes.
Building on this continuum, many organisations highlighted the need to replace the notion of ‘best interests’ in capacity legislation with ‘will and preferences’ of the person – even in cases of last resort where facilitated decision-making is required. The Centre for Disability Law and Policy also suggested that the legislation should not provide for a front-end assessment of capacity, including functional tests of capacity, on the basis that such tests hold people with disabilities to a higher standard than the rest of the population in terms of ability to make decisions and have decisions respected in law. As an alternative, the Centre suggested that the only valid reason for undertaking an assessment of decision-making capability should be to assess what supports need to be provided – not to restrict the person’s legal right to make decisions.
These proposals were well received by the Committee with the Chair, David Stanton TD concluding at the end of the session that: “Having listened to everyone – in the context of the previous set of hearings in which we engaged – it is obvious that we are concerned with a paradigm shift. The scheme of the Bill was drawn up in 2008 and it appears that there may be a need to tear it up and start again in order that we might get the philosophy right. We have the opportunity now to do this.”
Although the possibility of a third Justice Committee hearing to hear from individual rights-holders affected by the legislation was mooted, it appears that this is now not going ahead. The Committee has recently approached the organisations which made written and oral submissions for permission to publish parts of these submissions in its written report with proposed amendments to the capacity legislation. It is anticipated that this report will be published in the coming weeks and will influence the formation of the draft capacity legislation currently being worked on in the Department of Justice.