Last month I met Angela and Mary (I’ve changed their names). Angela was the mother of a disabled adult, who I’ll call Sarah. Sarah lacked the capacity to make any decisions for herself and so was and is utterly reliant on her parents, carers and professionals to make decisions about where and how she lives.
I met Angela, with Sarah’s carer, Mary in my office in April 2013. They had travelled almost 70 miles to see me and I was intrigued at what had made them travel so far for legal advice when between me and them was the very large city of Exeter and 30 miles of countryside and Moorland. So my first question was – “why are you here?”.
Angela explained. She had rung a number of solicitors firms closer to home and in the City but none had really sounded confident about being able to help them or enthusiastic about being able to resolve the problem they had. Then Mary said “I went on the internet and tracked you down and then I rang Angela and said “I’ve found her””. They both beamed at me. At this point I had not offered any advice at all.
What was it that they had “found”. What they told me was that they believed they had found someone who understood their problem and who could resolve the problem. Someone who was not afraid to stand up to a multi professional forum including psychiatrists and senior social workers and managers and say “you are wrong about this” and hold them to account for taking action in a way which Mary and Angela knew (in a very basic way) to be wrongful. They told me that they did not feel confident that some of the firms they had spoken to would be able to do this. Angela said “I’ve looked at your prices and you are more expensive than some of them, but that does not matter to me because I know you are what I need and because this problem is so important to me I realise I need to pay for the best advice I can afford”.
When Angela and Mary were booked in my assistant, Penny had taken a really good detail of the problem. That synopsis came to me before the interview. It was complex and involved detailed consideration of the Mental Capacity Act and Mental Capacity Act Code of Conduct. I spent four hours before the interview researching some of the finer points raised by the information that my assistant had taken down before Angela and Mary ever met me. This meant that I was able to give very clear advice in that first meeting that there appeared to be many breaches of the Code of Conduct and that as such the actions of professionals were unlawful and could be challenged in the Courts. They weren’t fobbed off with a non committal view.
So what brought them to me. A week before we met Mary had been told that professionals had met and decided that although until this point the social workers had been unanimous that Sarah had thrived, developing skills and language that no one had predicted a year before, that she could no longer stay with Mary’s family because health professionals were concerned that she presented an unacceptable risk to Mary’s teenage children. Mary, a very experienced professional carer, was deeply aggrieved by this and felt that this undermined her as a carer and parent. Mary’s professional agency had not been consulted about this decision and, of most concern, no one had even tried to ascertain what Sarah felt about this or what her mother thought about this.
We then spent a couple of hours gathering back ground information but more importantly working out a strategy – the most important things was what Angela hoped to achieve for Sarah, and what Sarah herself would want if she was able to tell us. Very quickly I was able to see that the last thing Angela or Mary wanted to do was to end up in a hostile complaint or in expensive Court of Protection proceedings. Angela had every right to initiate both but at the heart of what we were doing was trying to find a solution that would lead to Sarah being able to continue to live with Mary and her family, where Angela was sure that Sarah was happy and secure. Both were sure that any risks identified could be managed.
Angela explained that after 18 years caring for Sarah she had known that the toll on her own health as a single working parent was such that as Sarah became an adult she could not continue in that role and as heartbreaking as it was to watch Sarah attach to a new “mother” figure and family that it was Sarah’s happiness that was essential. This was a wonderful parent who had given Sarah every thing she could as a child but who had been exhausted by her caring responsibilities and who knew she had done her job and that she needed to hand over the care of her adult child to other professional carers. Before Sarah went to live with Mary she was mostly living between home and a residential school where she was becoming increasingly institutionalised and was showing signs of being very unhappy. Angela was very clear that any return to a non family setting would set Sarah back years and make her miserable.
I was able to quickly compose letters to the professionals involved setting out how Angela felt about the decision taken and that Angela viewed the decision as unlawful. I asked for an assurance that Sarah would not be moved pending agreement about the way forward. 24 hours later we received a letter from the Local Authority agreeing that until agreement was reached Sarah would not be moved.
Two weeks later a “best interests” meeting took place which I attended with Angela at which all the key people who were involved in Sarah’s life were invited, including Angela, Mary, Mary’s Agency management and an Independant Advocate for Sarah (none of whom had been involved at the previous meeting which had purported to decide Sarah’s future). Once the professionals heard from all of these people the “decision maker” came to the decision that Sarah’s best interests would not be served by moving her and that the risks associated with her living in a normal family could be managed by a range of measures that Angela, Mary and Mary’s agency were all more than happy to comply with – indeed many of which were proposed by them. Everyone agreed that Sarah was a complex young adult and that her disability would never change so that there would always remain some risks associated with her care. These risks could change and that the risk needed to be reviewed.
I agreed a fee with Angela for my work up to and including the Best Interests Meeting because I was able to predict what time was involved in helping with her problem and this gave her certainty about her costs. It was not cheap but Angela told me that as long as there were no surprises she was happy to pay for specialist advice to assist her in what was for her and Sarah a matter of such life long importance.
I hope I don’t need to give Angela advice again and that assurances that Angela will be kept involved in all key decisions will now hold. What was really pleasing is that although Angela could have made a formal complaint about the treatment she and Sarah received and although resolving the situation caused by professionals failing to follow the Code of Practice was costly, Angela came away feeling listened to by professionals and empowered. The professionals agreed to have monthly core group meetings involving Angela, Mary, Mary’s agency and the Independant Advocate and so hopefully never again will professionals divorced from Sarahs life make decisions based on “risk” alone without evaluating Sarah’s best interests with the fullest of information and views available.
It is helping people just like this that gives our firm its reputation for handling complex cases with that extra attention to detail and understanding of what our clients want and need from us from the outset avoiding delay and getting a solution quickly where that is possible. From start to finish we resolved this complex matter in about 5 weeks.
In my next post read Angela’s own words describing how it felt to be able to be supported by solicitors who understood her needs and were able to give her the support she needed, when she needed it and how she needed it.