The Mental Capacity Act is failing, says Lords

13 March 2014


Vulnerable adults are being failed by the Act designed to protect and empower them. Social workers, healthcare professionals and others involved in the care of vulnerable adults are not aware of the Mental Capacity Act, and are failing to implement it. That is the key finding of the House of Lords Committee established to scrutinise how the Act is working in practice, as outlined in its report published today.

The Committee is recommending that an independent body is given responsibility for oversight of the Act in order to drive forward vital changes in practice. The Committee also found that the controversial Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS), inserted into the Mental Capacity Act in 2007 by the Mental Health Act, are not fit for purpose. The Committee is recommending that the DoLS be replaced with legislation that is in keeping with the language and ethos of the Mental Capacity Act as a whole. 

Chairman of the Committee, Lord Hardie, said: 

“When the Act came into being, it was seen as a visionary piece of legislation, which marked a turning point in the rights of vulnerable people; those with learning difficulties, dementia, brain injuries or temporary impairment. The Committee is unanimous that this is important legislation, with the potential to transform lives.

However, what is clear from the substantial volume of evidence we have received is that the Act is not working at all well. That is because people do not know about the Act, or do not understand it, even though many professionals have legal obligations under it. Those who may lack capacity have legal rights under the Act, but they are not being fulfilled.  In many cases complying with the Act is treated like an optional add-on – nice to have, but not essential. In short, the Act is not being implemented.

The Committee believes that the Act is good and it needs to be implemented. What we want to see is a change in attitudes and practice across the health and social care sector which reflects the empowering ethos of Act. To achieve this we recommend that overall responsibility for the Act be given to an independent body whose task will be to oversee, monitor and drive forward implementation. At present there are many bodies involved in implementing the Act, but there is no single organisation which is in charge. And the effect of that can be seen in the Act’s patchy implementation. Ministers would still be ultimately responsible for the Act, but placing an independent body in charge would provide a focus for activity to raise awareness and improve practice.

“Our other key finding concerns the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards. The intention of the safeguards is to provide legal protection for people who are being deprived of their liberty for their own safety. For example, someone with dementia may be prevented from leaving a care home alone because they are at risk of getting lost. The safeguards are there to ensure that such restrictions are not placed on people without good reason, and without considering less restrictive options first. It also provides a means to challenge such arrangements.

“We were very concerned by what we heard about the safeguards. The evidence suggests that tens of thousands of people are being deprived of their liberty without the protection of the law, and without the protection that Parliament intended. Worse still, in some cases the safeguards are being wilfully used to oppress individuals and to force decisions upon them, regardless of what actions may be in their best interests.

“The criticism of the safeguards extended to the legislative provisions themselves; we were told the provisions were poorly drafted, overly complex and bureaucratic. A senior judge described the experience of trying to write a judgment on the safeguards as feeling “as if you have been in a washing machine and spin dryer”. Even if implementation could be improved, the legislation itself is flawed.

“In the face of such criticism, the only option is to start again. The Government needs to go back to the drawing board to draft replacement provisions that are easy to understand and implement, and in keeping with the style and ethos of the Mental Capacity Act.”

The Committee further recommends that:

  •  Government works with regulators and professional bodies to ensure the Act is given a higher profile in training, standard setting and inspections;
  • Government increases the staff resources at the Court of Protection to speed up handling of non-controversial cases;
  • Government reconsiders the provision of non-means tested legal aid to those who lack capacity, especially in cases of deprivation of liberty;
  • Local Authorities use their discretionary powers to appoint Independent Mental Capacity Advocates more widely than is currently the case; 
  • Government addresses the poor levels of awareness and understanding of Lasting Powers of Attorney and advance decisions to refuse treatment among professionals in the health and social care sectors;
  • Government review the criminal law provision for ill-treatment or neglect of a person lacking capacity to ensure that it is fit for purpose.

The Committee also recommends that the House of Lords seek an update from the Government twelve months from now to find out what they have done in response to their key recommendations.

You can watch a YouTube video of Lord Hardie giving an overview of the Committee’s report by following the link.

The report is available on the Committee's page on the Parliament website.

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