Adults who lack the capacity to make important decisions for themselves are entitled to their autonomy and should never be equated to children. The Court of Appeal trenchantly made that point in directing that a man with a severe learning disability should be vaccinated against COVID-19.
The man, aged in his 20s, also suffered from congenital heart defects and his mother and primary carer was deeply anxious that vaccination against the virus would place him at particular risk. A judge nevertheless found that vaccination would be in his best interests and authorised an NHS body to perform the procedure.
Ruling on the mother's challenge to that ruling, the Court did not doubt the sincerity and strength of her beliefs, which were worthy of respect. She had provided her son with the best possible care throughout his life and it was thanks to her that delightful and engaging aspects of his personality had blossomed and grown.
In dismissing her appeal, however, the Court found that her principled opposition to his vaccination could not be reconciled with national medical guidance or the expert opinion of a consultant cardiologist that it was the virus itself, rather than vaccination against it, that would place him at heightened risk.
The Court noted that an adult who lacks capacity is not and never should be treated as a child. Such a paternalistic approach had long since been consigned to history and recognised for what it is – a subversion of adult autonomy. The Court was concerned to protect the man's freedom, not that of his mother.
The views of parents, friends and others close to a person who lacks capacity are, the Court acknowledged, invariably helpful when considering non-medical issues in such cases. However, their relevance is to illuminate the broader canvas of such a person's circumstances, not to provide a platform for their own opposition to a course of action which is, objectively, in the person's best interests.
The Court noted that, whilst the man's ability to exercise his autonomy may be circumscribed, it was not extinguished. He had a quality of life which was both dignified and meaningful and his lack of capacity did not render his own wishes and feelings irrelevant. Although unable to express himself verbally, he was able to express enjoyment or displeasure, acquiescence or resistance.
The preponderance of evidence indicated that he was not anxious about receiving injections or having blood taken. The only force likely to be required in vaccinating him was to hold his arm to keep it still. Although he could not absorb the medical issues involved in the case, he was perfectly able to decide for himself whether to cooperate or reject vaccination.