Freedom of religion, the Mental Health Act and Mental Capacity Act

Yes yes yes I know we need to do a blog post on Cheshire West. It is in the pipeline.

In the meantime I’m doing another blogpost on a judgment which has not even been published yet. The facts are in the public domain and it extends an issue we already addressed in this blog a few weeks ago – the interfaces between the Mental Health Act, Mental Capacity Act and the right to freedom of religion under Article 9 ECHR.

J is 23 years old and currently detained under the Mental Health Act. He will cut himself severely if not physically restrained and these deep cuts will cause life-threatening bleeding which may only be treatable with a blood transfusion. J is a Jehovah’s Witness and and has drawn up an advance directive specifying that he did not want to receive a blood transfusion under any circumstances even if a failure to treat might result in his death.

The advance directive is valid for the purposes of the Mental Capacity Act. It was signed and witnessed and J had mental capacity at the time it was drawn up. But advance directives do not apply to treatment administered under the Mental Health Act.

Treatment given to J to treat the effects of his self-harm will be lawful treatment under s.63 of the Mental Health Act. But J’s doctors applied to the Court of Protection for a declaration regarding the legality of their treatment because given he currently has capacity to refuse treatment and has made an advance directive it would be unethical to override these wishes and perform a blood transfusion upon him.

In a sense the advance directive is a red herring. It is useful future evidence that J’s religious convictions are not a current whim but apart from that even if J were not detained under the MHA it would only be relevant if J was incapable of making a capacitous refusal of a blood transfusion. In fact two hearings have found that J does have the capacity to make decisions about his treatment. The point is unusually well-established in his case.

Mostyn J. has held that J’s doctors have the discretion not to perform a blood transfusion should one become necessary in J’s case. His reasons have yet to be published but will be interesting to see.

At issue here is the extent to which a patient detained under the MHA enjoys the same right to freedom of religion as any other patient. Interestingly, the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights as it applies to Jehovah’s Witnesses is not particularly helpful. The most useful case is a chamber judgment from 2010 concerning the total suppression of the Jehovah’s Witness faith in Russia. One justification put forward for this by the Russian authorities was that in promoting the carrying of ‘No Blood’ cards by followers the Jehovah’s Witness faith promoted suicide. The ECtHR held that provided the decision to carry a ‘No Blood’ card was capacitous and not the result of an overborne will encouraging followers to carry these cards could be consistent with public policy.

But domestic jurisdictions have already gone much further in advancing the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to protect their religious convictions even if this places them in danger and the caselaw the ECtHR cited was of necessity drawn from Ontario, England, Spain, South Africa and the USA.

And since the passing of the MCA a number of cases have upheld the position in English law that the advance directives of Jehovah’s Witnesses which specify the refusal of blood products should usually be honoured. Whatever the ethical questions this raises the legal point is well-established in English law. A refusal by Jehovah’s Witness of a life-saving blood transfusion should be respected unless there are circumstances that put healthcare stuff on notice that it may not have been made voluntarily.

So J is in an extraordinary position. His doctors confirm that he has the mental capacity to refuse treatment. If he was at home and self-harmed to the extent that he has and were taken to an A&E Department the position that his current refusal (were he able to make one) or his advance directive should be respected would be uncontroversial. It is only the fact of his detention under the Mental Health Act which makes compulsory treatment possible at all. Reports on the outcome of Mostyn J’s judgment state that he held that clinicians can leave J untreated if he self-harms to the point of endangering himself again. This seems consistent with the only legal position that makes any sense. Patients detained under the Mental Health Act must, at a minimum, enjoy the same right to freedom of religion as anyone else. But how he reached that conclusion and distinguished J’s freedom to decide to harm himself and refuse treatment without interference from the position of other patients who self-harm will be critical. Parliament in 2005 clearly did not intend that patients in psychiatric detention should be able to use the provisions of the Mental Capacity Act to protect their interest because they explicitly excluded detention under the MHA from the ambit of the MCA.

J’s case is similar to a number of other cases which appear to straddle the operations of the MHA and MCA and also involve the protection of human rights of detained people. Cases like SB, AA, E and J raise huge questions about the viability of maintaining both a Mental Health Act and Mental Capacity Act and in effect two jurisdictions to safeguard the human rights of people with mental disorders.

The only major proposal around for improving this state of affairs is George Szmukler and John Dawson’s proposal for a Fusion Law. I am personally hugely sceptical about the likelihood of improving the transparency and consistency or challenge-ability (is that a word?) of professional decision-making about people with mental disorders if the threshold used is whether they have the mental capacity to make a decision. So I am a fusion sceptic.

But cases like J’s provide an opportunity to watch and reflect. If Mostyn J offers robust guidance on how clinicians should make decisions about protecting J’s freedom of religion whilst working within the MHA then the case for fusion is weakened. But a poor judgment which leaves clinicians less clear how to decide the next difficult set of facts reduces the case for maintaining the status quo.

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One thought on “Freedom of religion, the Mental Health Act and Mental Capacity Act

  1. Pingback: Freedom of religion, the Mental Health Act and Mental Capacity Act Part 2 | Mental Health and Mental Capacity Law

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