The World Congress on Adult Capacity: a dispatch

For the first time since the before-times, I found myself in mid-June 2022 heading on a train to, to an actual conference, with real people.  Three days later, I returned from Edinburgh and the 7th World Congress on Adult Capacity mentally over-stimulated and physically exhausted, having been entirely immersed in capacity related matters of every hue.  The bald numbers from the Congress would be impressive under any circumstances, but even more so in the present state of the world: 274 participants from 30 countries, participating in 28 sessions.   Some of those sessions were plenary, including an uncompromising[1] plenary presentation by the Vice-Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Professor Jonas Ruškus, and a tour de force application of the Kuhnian model of scientific progress to the world of capacity by Professor Wayne Martin – the text of which is available here.   The opening speech by the indefatigable President of the organising committee (and mainstay of the 39 Essex Chambers Scotland Report), Adrian Ward, can be found here; and his closing remarks here, generously – and rightly – thanking the other members of the organising committee and supporting cast (including the other mainstay of the Scotland Report, Jill Stavert, who led on the academic programme).   The majority of the sessions took place in parallel and, even more acutely than usual, I suffered conference cloning regret syndrome.  Even though the conference organisers took full advantage of technology to enable distribution of materials, there is no substitute to hearing the presentation live, or to participating in discussion in the immediate aftermath.

We will be bringing you coverage of the Congress in the 39 Essex Chambers Mental Capacity Report, but four observations should suffice for now from my perspective.

First: perhaps because of the mind-set of those attending, perhaps because of the particular journey that I took through the different sessions, or perhaps because of the stage of the journey that we are now at, it was striking how, whilst the CRPD permeated all aspects of the conference, the permeation was one focused on practical, rather than theoretical matters.   Debates about the validity or otherwise of the concept of mental capacity, for instance, placed squarely on the table by Professor Ruškus, did not feature in the remainder of the conference sessions that I attended, whilst detailed and gritty discussions about how best to support decision-making abilities, and to reach the ‘right’ decision for the person otherwise, did.  To single out as an example, perhaps invidiously, I would note the I-Decide project run by Support Girona, who have set up a fascinating model for supported decision-making agreements including not just the person and their supporter, but also a facilitator.   This is not merely a theoretical model, but one developed within the framework of existing law.

Second: I was reminded, again, how legal capacity has a very different place within civil law jurisdictions to that which it has in common law jurisdictions. In (very) crude terms, it seems to me that whereas legal capacity is a clearly, and expressly, identified concept within the grounding codes of civil law jurisdictions, identifying the place of legal capacity is a much more piecemeal affair within common law jurisdictions.[2] Hence (and in equally crude terms) it seems to me the importance placed by activists upon reforms in civil law jurisdictions which lead to amendments in the relevant code as to the meaning of legal capacity (and when a person can be ‘incapacitated’), and the scepticism of common lawyers that those amendments give the full picture of what happens in situations where a person is temporarily or permanently cognitively impaired to the point that they cannot make (or communicate) a decision.

Third: there was, for me, a running theme implicit in many of the discussions and presentations of the impossibility of legislating for the qualities that are required for the delivery of support, through whatever legal mechanism is put in place.   Whilst I was unable to attend the session at which he spoke, Graham Morgan, a member of the Executive of the Scottish Mental Health Law Review[3] has previously put it very vividly – how can you legislate for love?     And if you cannot legislate for such qualities, is time and effort better spent on supporting the development of those qualities amongst those providing support, or on changing the wording of the law?

Fourth: the organisers are to be heartily congratulated on having pulled off against overwhelming odds a superb Congress, and for both laying down a real gauntlet to their successors in Argentina and the tools to support them to take up that challenge.

[1] But on one view slightly surprising, in that he singled out Ireland (alongside Peru, Colombia and Costa Rica) as an example of a jurisdiction closer to compliance with Article 12 CRPD.  Whilst the new Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015, yet to come into force, undoubtedly tracks much closer to compliance with the letter of Article 12(4), it is still founded upon a functional model of mental capacity.

[2] An example of this, indirectly, can be found in the fascinating table produced by Rosie Harding in her chapter in her new co-edited volume, “Supporting Legal Capacity in Socio-Legal Context” (Hart, 2022), where she identifies 16 different supported and substituted decision-making frameworks in English capacity law.  And that list only addresses statutory frameworks, to which it would be necessary to add all the different ways in which the common law addresses the consequences of cognitive impairments.

[3] A project which loomed large in the work of the Congress, not least through the visible and highly engaged presence of its chair John, now Lord, Scott QC.

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