Health

Councils 'swamped' by checks on rights of vulnerable

hospital door Image copyright SPL

Councils in England and Wales are being overwhelmed with requests to ensure the human rights of vulnerable people are not being abused.

A landmark ruling from the Supreme Court earlier this year led to tens of thousands more requests for deprivation of liberty assessments in care homes and hospitals.

Most are not being carried out within the legal deadlines, new figures show.

Councils have called for urgent government help.

New safeguards

The Supreme Court ruled in March that disabled people have the same rights to "physical liberty" as everyone else.

This lowered the threshold of deprivation of liberty safeguards (DoLS) under the Mental Capacity Act to cover disabled people living in care homes and hospitals.

When someone in a care homes or hospital, usually suffering from a severe learning disability or dementia, has limits put on what they can do or where they can go for their own safety, the institution has to apply to the local council to authorise the deprivation of liberty

It means councils should assess if their human rights are being respected and that there are no unnecessary barriers to them moving around - being confined to one room all day or making the garden out of bounds, for example.

The safeguards should ensure that a care home, hospital or supported living arrangement only deprives someone of their liberty in a safe and correct way, and that this is only done when it is in the best interests of the person and there is no other way to look after them.

Someone's liberty can be deprived by a doctor, for instance, if they believe the person, who usually has a severe learning disability or dementia, would be in danger otherwise.

If a hospital or care home deprive someone of their liberty - for example, by putting restrictions on where they can go - they must get the restrictions approved by the local authority.

Figured obtained through Freedom of Information requests by the online journal Community Care reveal councils have seen a surge in DoLS assessment requests.

In 2013-2014, 174 councils in England and Wales received 8,602 requests. Since April this year they've had 33,476 applications.

Hertfordshire County Council has seen applications rise from 262 last year to 2,623 so far this year.

Backlog

Best Interest Assessors, usually social workers, who carry out the assessments say they have neither the time nor resources to carry out applications and that it's impossible for them to meet legal timescales - the supervisory body should arrange for an assessment to take place within 21 days of receiving an application. An 'urgent' one must be done within seven days.

Last year, just 2.2% of assessments breached legal timescales; so far this year it's 50.2%.

Mathieu Culverhouse, an associate solicitor at Irwin Mitchell who was involved in the Supreme Court judgement, said: "It was anticipated that the Supreme Court's judgment would lead to a significant increase in applications for DoLS assessments and this is now reflected in these latest figures.

"This increase is to be welcomed, as it means that large numbers of vulnerable adults who were not previously considered to need DoLS authorisations will now have the benefit of regular reviews of their protective care regimes. It is concerning that in many cases the assessment process is not taking place within the required time limits and it is to be hoped that the government will take note and provide the necessary resources to ensure that DoLS assessments can be carried out promptly in all cases."

The Local Government Association says the demand for assessments is likely cost councils £88 million and is wanting the government to provide additional funding.

Councillor Izzi Seccombe, Chair of the LGA's Community Wellbeing Board, said: "These alarming figures back up our previous warnings that councils would buckle under the financial pressure of a rise in assessments. We completely agree with the principle of having broader, more robust checks for people needing care, but the Government needs to provide adequate funding so that councils have the time and money to do this properly.

"Failure to do this will have a hugely damaging impact on crucial social care services on which people rely and will lead to more vulnerable people left facing long waiting times for assessments."

David Pearson, president of the Association of Directors of Social Services said the delays in carrying out assessments were "very regrettable but inevitable".

"This matter is very urgent and the government needs to share responsibility with us for urgently responding to the challenge of getting this right for people who lack capacity."

A government spokesman said: "The Health and Social Care information Centre is collecting data on this impact and we will carefully consider the results when they are published shortly."

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