‘I might, if it is published, deplore Mostyn J’s reasoning about the mother’s best interests or her capacity…’
Showing uncanny prescience Mostyn J’s judgment and the transcript of the case of Re AA have now been published and I deplore them (warning pdf).
I wanted them to be better than this. But the judgment does not really explain how the test of capacity in s. 2 Mental Capacity Act applies to AA and reading the transcript my suspicion is that he has not assessed AA’s capacity properly, and may even have confused it with her best interests.
What did the judge know at the point he made his judgment?
AA was detained in hospital under s.3 of the Mental Health Act. She had a ‘schizophrenic disorder which was psychotic in nature’, and she was experiencing delusions.
She had had two previous births by caesarean section increasing the risk of a uterine rupture in this pregnancy to something close to 1%.
At the time of the hearing she was 39 weeks pregnant and it was proposed that the caesarean be performed the following day.
Her doctors favoured a planned caesarean performed under a general anaesthetic because they feared that if she was allowed to go into labour spontaneously she might lie about the onset of labour and interfere with efforts made to help her. Planned caesarean would allow them total control of the process and thus make the process maximally physically safe.
The finding of lack of capacity
In the judgment Mostyn J. tells us that he finds AA lacks capacity ‘within the meaning of s.2(1) MCA. But s.2(1) MCA only tells us that for a person to lack mental capacity in English law they must have a ‘an impairment of, or a disturbance in the functioning of, the mind or brain.’
AA certainly met this requirement. But the judgment does not tell us why she met the further requirements of being unable to make a decision under s.3 MCA. To be unable to make a decision a person must be unable to understand, retain, use or weigh or communicate their decision even after all necessary practical assistance has been provided to them. The judgment contains no discussion of what efforts have been made to discuss birth planning with AA, nor of whether she understands the consequences of refusing a caesarean section.
This does not mean AA had capacity at the time. Only that the judgment does not communicate that she did not.
The finding that a caesarean was in AA’s best interests
He further fails to apply the best interests test in s.4 correctly. He correctly identifies that the interests he is meant to take into account are primarily those of the mother and not those of the child who is, as yet, unborn. This is clearly a difficult task since in late pregnancy the interests of most women are intimately intertwined with those of their baby. There is a suggestion this was true for AA, because it is recorded in the transcript that she wants to see and hold her baby after it is born. Nevertheless the position in law is that we cannot start from the position of healthy baby = happy mother and work backwards to establish what the mother’s interests are.
We can however, identify in some cases that the mother’s best interests will prospectively be achieved through a healthy delivery and take that into account when making a best interests assessment. This is true when giving birth to a healthy child will be critical to the mother’s mental health for example. Unfortunately, Mostyn J. places a high value on this point but fails to consider any other evidence concerning the mothers past wishes, feelings, beliefs or values. Nor is any evidence from her family concerning her views on childbirth cited. Of course, this may not have been available, but its absence should have been noted and strongly regretted since it makes the decision reached under s.4 MCA largely artificial.
The actual best interests assessment to be reached here was a subtle one. Vaginal birth after caesarean is a normal practice and the risks of uterine rupture cited in the judgment are those given in standard literature given to women considering this. So if AA was refusing a caesarean this did not by itself indicate anything amiss. Many women with capacity with a history of previous caesareans choose to give birth vaginally every day. The case also reinforces the view that adults lacking capacity are not allowed to make the same risky decisions that are permitted to the rest of society.
As Lucy Series predicted, if AA had been present a better judgment might have been reached. There might have been practical difficulties in securing the physical presence of a woman with serious mental distress, currently detained who was also 39 weeks pregnant at this hearing. But the sheer absence of her voice in the decision being reached about her life is utterly inexcusable. We must do better than this.
Finally, the thing that utterly baffles me about this judgment is Mostyn J’s objection to the placement in a Mother and Baby Unit, which is what her treating clinician had recommended and which would have been by far the best option for her since it would have respected the one wish we know her to have had – to have contact with her baby. I cannot make head nor tail of paragraph 7 of the judgment and can only identify uncharitable (to Mostyn J.) interpretations to place upon it. If anyone could help me out I’d be grateful.