|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
In my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, on 23rd October, I indicated that it was the Government's intention to issue a consultation paper on the subject of mental incapacity. I am pleased to announce the publication of a Green Paper today. It concerns the law in England and Wales. It examines a wide range of issues concerning the legal rights of people who are unable to make decisions for themselves or who cannot communicate their decisions as the result of disease, disability or injury.
As it currently stands, the law affords little protection either to mentally incapacitated adults or to those who care for them. The law is confusing and fragmented. Many carers in particular are expected to make decisions on behalf of incapacitated adults without a clear idea what legal authority there is for those decisions. Everybody will know of a friend or relative whose life is affected by the unsatisfactory state of the current law. Let me provide just three examples. The first is a young man with a learning disability who has reached the age of 18 and wants to be able to make some decisions for himself, such as what clothes to wear or where to live. A second example might be a young woman, formerly a high-flying banker until a severe car crash caused brain damage, making her incapable of taking all but the simplest decisions about her life, health or welfare. A third example would be an elderly woman who is now suffering from dementia. She is in a home, and currently there are concerns about how her finances are protected. The present law does not provide sufficient guidance or safeguards for each of the people I have mentioned, nor for those who care for them. The Green Paper invites views on the need for a framework for decision-making on behalf of people who lack mental capacity.
I must make clear to your Lordships at the outset that the paper does not seek views on euthanasia. Euthanasia is a deliberate intervention undertaken with the express intention of ending a life, at an individual's own request or for a merciful motive. The Government are absolutely opposed to euthanasia in any form. The Government fully support the view of the House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics in its report of February 1994 that euthanasia is unacceptable and cannot be sanctioned in any circumstances. Euthanasia is illegal now and will remain illegal. So let us not be side-tracked by this.
The Government acknowledge two debts--first, to the Law Commission. Its work in this area culminated in the publication of its report, Mental Incapacity, in 1995. The paper published today is based closely on the wide-ranging and coherent set of recommendations contained in the Law Commission's final report. The Government's second debt is to the House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Walton.
I recognise that many of the issues raised in our Green Paper are sensitive and attract strong ethical views. This is a Green Paper that seeks the broadest range of responses before policy can be settled. With the exception of our absolute opposition to euthanasia, the Government have taken no fixed or final views on any of these questions.
The areas covered by the Green Paper include definitions of incapacity and of the best interests of an incapacitated person. The paper also considers the need for a more informal framework for those making day-to-day decisions on behalf of an incapacitated person. The paper looks at the possibilities open to someone who is able to make arrangements for a time when mental capacity may be lost. It examines the law relating to the making of advance statements and proposals for a new form of power of attorney that would cover healthcare and personal welfare issues as well as financial issues. The independent supervision of medical and research procedures is also considered, as is the possibility of increased protection under public law for people with a mental incapacity and any others at risk. Finally, the paper looks at a possible judicial and administrative framework to supervise and regulate all these arrangements.
The first set of issues examined in the Green Paper are the key principles which underpin the Law Commission's recommendations. The first of these is the need to replace the variety of different tests of capacity with a single, straightforward statutory definition. Such a definition would introduce certainty and clarity. The proposed test of capacity would be focused in each particular case on the decision which has to be taken and on the ability of the person concerned to understand the nature of the decision required and its implications. This would avoid unnecessary intrusion into an individual's personal affairs and would enable him or her to have as much involvement as possible in the decision-making process. It would, for example, allow a person to continue to make everyday decisions--for example, how their finances should be organised or what presents to buy for
The second central principle is that decisions on behalf of people under an incapacity should be made in their best interests. In determining whether a decision is in a person's best interests, the decision maker should take account of a number of factors. These include the ascertainable past and present wishes of the individual concerned; the views of others whom it is appropriate and practical to consult; and whether the purpose for which the decision is required can be achieved as effectively in a way that is less restrictive of the individual's freedom of action. Decisions taken on behalf of a person lacking capacity would therefore require a careful focused consideration of that person as an individual.
The Green Paper seeks views on the practical application of these criteria. For example, there may be differences of opinion between those who are to be consulted and conflicts of interest may arise. It may be, for example, that two close relatives differ about where a person should be looked after--a spouse might wish to continue to care for the patient at home, while a son or daughter might favour nursing home care.
The Law Commission also proposed that a legal framework be established to govern the many informal day-to-day decisions that are made by carers, family members or treatment providers on behalf of those under an incapacity. This legal framework would include a general authority for decisions to be taken on behalf of an incapacitated adult, provided those decisions are reasonable and in the person's best interests. The Government accept these proposals in principle but remain concerned that any system of this kind should have adequate safeguards built in to ensure that incapacitated people and their assets are protected against abuse. The Green Paper therefore seeks views on the additional safeguards that would be needed.
One area of the Law Commission report which has raised particular concern in some quarters is that concerning healthcare decisions intended to have effect when a person loses mental capacity. These decisions are commonly known as "living wills", but a more accurate term, "advance statement", is used by the Law Commission and in the Green Paper.
There is a misconception that the Law Commission's proposals would make legal provision for advance statements for the first time. This is not the case. Valid advance refusals already have full effect at common law. This means that a person who is worried about the potential for a particular form of medical treatment already has the right to refuse that treatment by way of an advance refusal. A Jehovah's Witness, for example, can already refuse to receive a blood transfusion. That refusal cannot be overruled.
An advance statement enables people to leave instructions about their medical treatment in anticipation of a time when they are no longer capable of making decisions or communicating them. The sorts of decisions which can be made are only those which a fully competent adult is allowed to make. When mentally
What an advance statement would be able to do, however, is allow patients with cancer who know that they may at some future time lose capacity to consent to treatment or to communicate that consent to provide that consent in advance. It could even allow the patient to consent to the use of new drugs on a trial basis, if that is what the patient wanted. Equally a terminally ill patient could request that treatment is provided to sustain life for the longest possible time, even if the resultant treatment would normally be considered overly burdensome.
The Government recognise that the Law Commission's proposals on advance statements raise complex issues on which many people have strongly held personal, religious and ethical opinions. For this reason, the Green Paper specifically seeks views on whether legislation in this area is appropriate, and, if so, what its objective should be.
The Law Commission took the view that some types of serious medical procedures, including sterilisation and donation of tissue or bone marrow, should receive additional independent supervision to make sure that the best interests of the incapacitated individual are properly protected. This supervision could take the form of consideration by the courts; an independent second medical opinion; or certain other types of supervisory mechanism.
In certain limited circumstances the Law Commission suggested that a departure from the best interests criteria, which I mentioned earlier, might be justified. One of these relates to the withdrawal of artificial nutrition and hydration from a patient in a persistent vegetative state. In view of the different opinions which exist about whether these patients can, in fact, be said to have best interests, the Government believe that it is important that the criteria are considered very carefully in every case which arises. The Green Paper seeks views on the vital ethical considerations which must be addressed in reaching decisions on the discontinuation of artificial nutrition and hydration in these cases.
The Law Commission also considered that there might be a case for departing from the best interests criteria in the area of medical procedures and research for the benefit of others. The commission recommended that it should be possible for these procedures to be authorised in relation to a person without the capacity to consent to them if the procedure would not cause the person significant harm and would be of significant benefit to others.
An example of this type of procedure is the removal of samples of blood or taking a mouth swab from the patient to investigate his or her genetic make-up. This could be of significant benefit to other members of the patient's family in identifying and treating inherited conditions. Procedures of this nature could also extend to non-therapeutic research into conditions from which the patient is suffering for the benefit of others suffering from that condition. The Law Commission suggested that this research should be justifiable only where the procedures involved minimal risk for the patient.
The Green Paper seeks views on whether research of this kind is ethical and reasonable and on whether the conditions for research proposed in the Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine provide adequate safeguards for patients unable to give consent.
The Law Commission also proposed an extension of the existing legal framework for enduring powers of attorney to include the concept of a "continuing power of attorney". At present, it is possible for people to make enduring powers of attorney to enable their property and financial affairs to be looked after if they become mentally incapable. The Law Commission's proposals would enable a person with capacity to appoint somebody to make decisions on their behalf if that capacity was ever lost. Under these provisions the decisions which could be taken would cover healthcare and personal welfare matters in addition to financial matters.
The House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics expressed concern that the decisions of attorneys are unlikely to be completely objective--for example, an attorney might find it difficult to decide whether to approve costly medical treatment or nursing care if he or she is either paying the bills or entitled to benefit from the patient's estate. Equally, given the changing nature of relationships, the choice of attorney might quickly become out of date and by the time an attorney is asked to act he or she might have lost the close rapport which once existed with the patient. The Law Commission has attempted to take account of these concerns by proposing safeguards and by listing a number of areas where an attorney should not be able to act on behalf of a person without capacity. However, here too there are different views. The Green Paper therefore seeks responses on whether legislation in this area would be appropriate, as well as seeking comments on the Law Commission's detailed proposals.
The Law Commission also considered the need for new laws to ensure that a broader group of people are protected from abuse and neglect. This group would include people who may not be able to protect themselves, such as the elderly or those with serious physical illnesses, as well as those suffering from mental incapacity. In particular, it recommended that social services authorities should have a new duty to investigate cases of possible neglect or abuse; and should have short-term powers to protect people in these cases.
The Law Commission's proposals in each of these areas clearly have substantial implications for the legal and administrative systems which would be needed to manage and supervise their operation. The commission therefore recommended a new court jurisdiction which could deal with personal welfare and healthcare issues, as well as property and financial matters. The latter are currently dealt with by the Court of Protection and the Public Trust Office. The Law Commission's proposals would require a substantial extension of their jurisdiction, as well as offering an increased role for the civil courts.
The Government can see the advantage in having a unified jurisdiction in this area, but there would clearly be considerable implications for the court system, both in terms of resources and practicality. The consultation paper invites views on the structure proposed by the Law Commission and on the form and extent of court jurisdiction that would be appropriate in particular areas.
This Green Paper raises many issues of great sensitivity, complexity and importance. They need addressing to ensure not only that the interests of incapacitated persons are adequately protected but also that those who have to make decisions on their behalf have a clear legal framework within which to do so.
The Government are determined to make progress in an area in which those who lack mental capacity and those who care for them are not adequately protected under the law today. They are equally determined that any reform should command the widest possible public support. The Government have not yet made any decision to legislate. Any legislation would be of wide-ranging social significance and of comparable scope and sensitivity to the Children Act. I therefore hope that the paper will generate a wide range of responses from all those with an interest in this area, whether professional or personal, to help the Government determine the best way forward.
Lord Kingsland: My Lords, the Statement by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor this afternoon raises, as I am sure your Lordships will all agree, issues of great ethical, scientific and social importance. Those issues are not subject to the disciplines of party politics. Indeed, if we were to measure your Lordships' views about each of the issues that the noble and learned Lord has raised, our conclusions would portray a very different pattern in your Lordships' House.
The Green Paper has only just been released and I, for one, have not had an opportunity to read it. My reflections on what the noble and learned Lord said will therefore be subject to my reading of the paper. I understand that it is to form the basis of consultations. That must be the right approach. Indeed, considerable consultations have already taken place. The Law Commission has been reflecting on these issues for
Perhaps the first and most important question that the noble and learned Lord has to consider is whether, at the end of the day, we ought to legislate in this area at all. So far these extraordinarily difficult decisions have been taken by an alliance of medical practitioners, the family and, on occasions when things have not gone quite right, the legal profession. The medical and legal professions have been taking decisions within their professional codes. Since, in my experience, the vast majority of doctors and lawyers are fundamentally decent and sensible people, most of the decisions taken have been the right ones. There have been exceptions, of course, and it has tended to be those exceptions that have received publicity.
I hope that the noble and learned Lord will agree with me when I say that he must be satisfied, at the end of the day, that it is more likely than not that legislation will improve the current situation. There is merit in clarifying the issues; but each of the hard cases in this area will depend on the particular facts of the case. We have to ask ourselves whether giving statutory expression to something that has emerged in a peculiarly British but on the whole satisfactory way will improve things.
My second point relates to the noble and learned Lord's statement about euthanasia, with which I entirely concur. Indeed, your Lordships' House has already expressed its view in the debate on the report of the Select Committee on Medical Ethics.
Anyone who glances at the Law Commission's report on mental incapacity must come to the view that some permutations of the solutions proposed therein would in effect result in the permitting of euthanasia. It is extremely important that, if we have legislation, those permutations which are permitted under the law do not amount to euthanasia. I know that the noble and learned Lord has had that very much in mind in formulating his Statement; and I say it not because I do not think he will be aware of the point but simply to express the strength of my party's feelings on the issue.
Thirdly, there is the question of measuring the best interests of the incapacitated party. It seems to me that the starting point for measuring the best interests must be the family. However, the family will not always be the institution which best expresses the interests of the incapacitated party. There may be circumstances in which there are conflicts of interest within the family, and we shall need a system for dealing with that.
There are also limitations on the system of living wills. When someone makes a living will, a certain set of circumstances is foreseeable; but time passes, circumstances change and medical science advances. At the moment of incapacity, is the will relevant to what is happening to the unfortunate party? The relevance of a living will and the weight given to it will depend on a range of facts which cannot be anticipated.
I have given a flavour of some of the thoughts that noble Lords on the Opposition Benches have about these matters. Many of your Lordships who know far more about these issues than I will be able to contribute more richly to this important debate.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page