Recently, the Court of Protection has been on the receiving end of some negative press. Rather like the NHS, any mention of it the media appears to have been part of a carefully orchestrated attack.
The story arc offered by many news vendors, be they a mouthpiece for the left wing or the right, has been to cast the Court as some kind of Machiavellian institution; operating under shadowy and mysteriously sinister circumstances, only interested in making rulings in secrecy, often to deny people their basic human rights.
Yet despite these reports, the actual purpose of the Court of Protection is, as its name suggests, to help and protect the most vulnerable people in society.
If someone has lost their mental capacity, perhaps through a serious traumatic brain injury or a debilitating mental impairment, then this can render them unable to continue with life without some outside help.
In such instances, the Court of Protection may be appointed to make any necessary decisions in the best interests of the incapacitated person. This may mean managing their financial affairs, or making the decisions needed to promote their health and general wellbeing.
And to further protect the nation’s vulnerable people, the Court has long upheld their anonymity and kept the details of their cases hidden.
In spite of those intentions, this secrecy has caused a noticeable and rapidly rising distrust to emanate from Fleet Street. Even though we are just a few weeks into 2014, we have already seen incendiary headlines about the Court denying mental health patients the right to give evidence, and an autistic man who was ordered to have his healthy teeth extracted to prevent him from further self-harming.
And just late last year, the national news was dominated by the story of an Italian woman with bipolar disorder who was ordered by the Court to give birth by Caesarean section without her consent, upon which her child was immediately taken and put into care.
Though these particular stories found in the tabloids, broadsheets and across the web have indeed been shocking, their publication appears to have been part of a specifically targeted agenda by the national media, and one which has displayed a complete a lack of balance.
Could it be that the newspapers are simply attacking the Court of Protection due to their own feelings of frustration? Are they unhappy at not being granted access to the facts of cases on which they wish to report? Certainly, freedom of the press is something on which this country has a proud tradition, so could it be that the newsrooms consider the Court’s restrictions to be a form of suppression?
We live in a time when secrecy and subterfuge stories dominate the national news. From Ed Snowden’s NSA revelations to the continued operations of Wikileaks and the asylum of Assange. Even the newspapers themselves have been embroiled in phone hacking scandals and the subsequent Leveson Inquiry.
It is a time when the wilful withholding of any sort of information, by any sort of institution, is treated with widespread suspicion and mistrust.
So of course, by including as much detail in their stories as was legally possible, the newspapers ran their campaign demanding a more open and welcoming Court of Protection, via the running of ample leading stories highlighting more extreme versions of the Court’s failings.
Naturally, the negative press in the campaign was not a pleasant read for anybody and, quite clearly, there are some very important issues that do need to be addressed. But neither did it paint the full picture, so it’s important to express that the vast majority of experiences with the Court of Protection have differed, and will continue to do so.
The nation’s perception of what is intended to be a benevolent service depends on it.
On the 17th January 2014, the Court of Protection’s most senior judge, Sir James Munby, announced that from 3rd February, there will be a renewed and greater transparency from the Court. The press campaign was a resounding success.
The announcement revealed that cases in the Court will be concluded by two types of judgement: one where its details are automatically published, and the other where the judgement may be published, the latter of which is up to the judge to decide whether it is in the public interest.
So as a result of this transparency, can we expect to see a lot more future news stories about all the good work the Court of Protection does and the decisions it makes? Or perhaps stories about the people it appoints to act as a deputy—a loved one, or their friend or relative, or possibly their solicitor—those who make crucial decisions on behalf of someone incapacitated.
Somehow, we doubt it. After all, how often does good news actually make the news?
Nevertheless it would help if people were made aware of the good that the Court of Protection does. You never know when you may use it.