To empower or to protect? Constructing the ‘vulnerable adult’ in English law and public policy
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 02 January 2018
Recent judgments in England and Wales have confirmed and extended the High Court's inherent jurisdiction to make declarations about interventions into the lives of ‘vulnerable’, rather than simply ‘mentally incapacitated’ adults. We argue that this shift is problematic because of the ways that the ‘vulnerable adult’ has been constructed in order to justify such interventions. The accounts of vulnerability drawn upon in the constructive process highlight the person's inherent characteristics and/or the circumstances within which that person might be denied the ability to make a free choice. Such an approach parallels the public policy protection of ‘vulnerable adults’ from abuse in care services and the statutory protection of ‘vulnerable witnesses’ in the criminal justice system, and is built on an external and objective assessment of being ‘at risk’, rather than an understanding of the subjective experience of being vulnerable. We argue that this imbalance might act to disempower the ‘vulnerable adult’ by reducing that person's life to a series of risk factors that fail, first, to place him/her at the heart of the decision to intervene, and, secondly, to engage adequately with the experiences through which that person ascribes meaning to his/her life.
- Research Article
- Copyright © Society of Legal Scholars 2008
1. Mental Capacity Act 2005, Ch 9.
2.  2 AC 1.
3. That is, ‘there [must] be a necessity to act when it is not practicable to communicate with the assisted person’, Re F, above n 2, at 75 per Lord Goff.
4. That is, ‘the action taken must be such as a reasonable person would in all the circumstances take, acting in the best interests of the assisted person’, Re F, above n 2, at 75 per Lord Goff.
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23. The first scenario concerns the compulsory assessment or treatment of an adult with a ‘mental disorder’, when that adult is judged to be a risk to either themselves or others, under ss 2 and 3 of the Mental Health Act 1983. The second scenario concerns the compulsory examination and/or detention of a person with an infectious and ‘notifiable’ disease in order to control the spread of that disease, under ss 35–38 of the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984, Ch 22. ‘Notifiable’ diseases for which this legislation can be invoked are listed in Public Health (Infectious Diseases) Regulations 1988 (SI 1998/1546). The provisions for public health protection in the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984 are due to be updated by the Health and Social Care Bill, currently going through parliament. This Bill reinforces and extends current measures to cover radioactive or chemical contamination in addition to infectious diseases.
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43. In England and Wales, the Special Measures available for vulnerable witnesses are the use of screens, live-link CCTV, exclusion of the public, removal of wigs or gowns, video-recorded evidence in-chief, video-recorded cross-examination and re-examination, examination via an intermediary, and devices to aid communication (Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, Ch 23, ss 23–30). The eligibility of these depends on whether the vulnerable witness is defined as an ‘incapacitated’ or ‘fearful or distressed’ witness.
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