The extent of the High Court’s inherent jurisdiction for the protection of vulnerable adults was considered last month in the widely reported case of Southend-on-Sea Borough Council v Meyers.

Inherent jurisdiction is the power of the High Court to protect ‘incompetent’ and also ‘vulnerable’ adults, even where they may have capacity, where it is necessary and proportionate to do so.

The Meyers case

Mr Meyers, a 97-year-old man, lived with his son KF. Mr Meyers was, by any objective assessment, vulnerable as he suffered from diabetes, osteoarthritis and blindness in both eyes.

The bungalow the two shared was in a shocking state of disrepair, attributable to the actions of KF who, the Court heard, had a history of alcoholism and drug addiction. The premises had no furniture, crockery, cutlery or linen. Patio doors to the building were without glass, leaving the occupants exposed to the elements. The property had no cooker. The central heating boiler had been dismantled by KF depriving Mr Meyer of heat and hot water.

When discovered by the Local Authority in September 2018, Mr Meyer was in a pathetic state, partially naked, sleeping on wooden boards in a cluttered room. Mr Meyer could not sit up, he had neither eaten nor drank in two days and was found to be dangerously dehydrated, suffering from a urinary tract infection.

The local authority transferred Mr Meyers to a care home, ‘convinced that if [Mr Meyers] goes home he could or will die’. An urgent application was made to the Court in which interim declarations were made, under inherent jurisdiction, requiring him to remain at the care home. The judge made orders restraining Mr Meyers from returning home and requiring him to live in the home.

Capacity assessment

In November 2018 a consultant psychiatrist carried out a capacity assessment. The assessment concluded that Mr Meyers had capacity to decide where he should reside, and that he was aware of the risks to himself arid others if his son continued to live with him.

In the light of this assessment and Mr Meyer’s unwillingness to remain in the care home, on 10 December 2018 the local authority applied to lift the interim declarations and sought declarations that they had discharged their responsibilities to Mr Meyers under the Care Act 2014 and the Human Rights Act 1998. The judge rejected the application, and made an injunction preventing Mr Meyers from returning home until a hearing could be listed for the full argument of the issues.

An application for permission to appeal was refused on 21 December 2018.[2] The Court held:

‘Mr Meyers was a vulnerable adult: he may not have been incapacitous but was unquestionably in need of protection… there was prima facie evidence he was of ‘unsound mind’… Art 5 of the ECHR is not infringed by detaining someone of unsound mind in an emergency (Wintwerp v the Netherlands 6301/73 [1970] ECHR 4)’

The judge heard full argument on 20 February 2019. Both the local authority and Mr Meyers contended that he should be allowed to return home. Mr Meyers gave evidence, telling the court that he had made promises to his late wife to stand by his son. Mr Meyer was aware that KF used drugs, he conceded that in the past out of fear he had locked himself in his room to avoid him. Despite this, Mr Meyer was prepared to take on the risk of living with his son.

‘Not of unsound mind’

The judge held that Mr Meyers had MCA capacity and that he was not ‘of unsound mind’ within the meaning of Article 5(1)(e) of the ECHR.

Mr Meyers was, however, a vulnerable adult within the description in Re SA (Vulnerable Adult with capacity: Marriage) [2005] EWHC 2942 (Fam), [2006] 1 FLR 867, triggering the court’s inherent jurisdiction for the protection of vulnerable adults.

The Court found that Mr Meyer’s vulnerability arose not from his blindness but from his ‘entirely dysfunctional’ relationship with his son who exerted an influence over his father which ‘occludes Mr Meyer’s ability to take rational and informed decisions.’

The Court found a risk to Mr Meyer’s life if he returned to the family home without a package of care. Mr Meyers would be prevented from living with, and assuming contact with, his son.

The judge stated:

‘…the ambition here is not to confine Mr Meyers to the care home, but to protect him from the grave danger that living in the bungalow with his son has already been demonstrated to represent.’

The Court declined the declaration sought by the local authority that it had discharged its statutory duties to Mr Meyers and ordered that they investigate whether KF could be removed from the bungalow by court order so that Mr Meyers may return with an appropriate package of care.

The Court asked that the Local Authority should seek to promote the reunification of Mr Meyer’s wider family to support care arrangements, to reduce the unhealthy interdependency between father and son.

Meyer demonstrates the breadth of the ‘great safety net’ of inherent jurisdiction.