By Celia Kitzinger, 17th August 2022
I’ve watched four different Court of Protection cases about people with “hoarding disorder”. In each one, the local authority had applied to remove the person from their home and rehouse them temporarily, dispose of hoarded property (exactly what could be disposed of, and when, was always contentious), carry out repairs, and return them to their home, usually with some sort of care package in place designed to prevent the hoarding from becoming unmanageable in future. This was another of those hearings.
At the time I observed this hearing (COP 13796227, on 13th July 2022), RH (with “schizotypal disorder” and “hoarding disorder”) had been detained in supported living accommodation for 11 weeks (except for a period during which she “absconded”), while work was done on her property “to render it habitable”.
Meanwhile, she’s continuing to hoard, and she’s also declined to wash or change her clothes at the care home.
She wants to return home.
This (remote) hearing, before DJ Beckley at First Avenue House London, was to finalise arrangements for her return home, now that works are nearly completed. “Works will be completed on Friday and she will be able to go home on Monday.”
The judge said he would ordinarily ask for a brief summary of the case at the beginning of a hearing, but would not do so today due to time constraints: the hearing was listed for 9.00am and lasted only 30 minutes. In order to support my understanding of the hearing, he asked both counsel to send me their position statements. Counsel representing RH (Laura Hobey-Hamsher of Bindmans) kindly did so. Despite a request – and a follow-up reminder a few days later – to counsel for the local authority (Tony Harrop-Griffiths of Field Court Chambers), I have not received the local authority position statement. I have pieced together the background to this hearing from the one position statement I’ve received in conjunction with my notes from the hearing itself.
Key issues at the hearing were:
1. Use of the key safe
“There’s a key safe. We’d like when carers visit the property on Tuesday and Thursday as part of the care plan that if she doesn’t come to the door when they ring and knock, that they have permission to use the key to enter the property. It may be that RH is there anyway, and they meet her within the property. If she’s not there, we want to know what they can and cannot do once they are there. We’d want them to be able to check on her welfare. If she’s there but not answering the door, it could be that – at the worst – she’s unconscious (though we’re not thinking that’s probable) or that the place needs tidying up – especially the toilet.” (Counsel for the Local Authority)
“With regard to the key safe, it’s proportionate and in RH’s best interests for carers to be able to let themselves into the property with a view to checking there are no issues potentially causing a risk to RH’s physical or mental health, for example being unwell, or the toilet again is overflowing, something like that.” (Counsel for RH via the Official Solicitor)
2. Disposal of items in P’s house
It became clear that RH is hoarding what for other people is “rubbish” – including (as mentioned over the course of the hearing) “empty plastic and glass bottles, empty food cans, cigarette butts, etcetera”, “used cotton-wool buds”, “bones from a fried chicken shop that someone had left in the street (that would concern me given the hot weather we’re having)” and “rotting food well beyond its sell-by date”.
It had been agreed, at the instigation of the Official Solicitor at an earlier roundtable meeting, that it should be ensured that “items of sentimental and/or financial value” are not removed by carers.
There was an issue about when and how items identified as “rubbish” could be disposed of, and it was agreed that items hazardous to RH’s health should be a priority for disposal. “Items such as used cotton-wool buds don’t cause a risk to her health. They do have to be disposed of eventually, but twice a week would be so disorienting to her, and so distressing, as to do more harm than good” (Counsel for RH via the Official Solicitor). “What the Official Solicitor doesn’t consider proportionate is that – potentially twice a week – people unknown to RH enter the property and remove items that in their view are rubbish – even with the caveats relating to financial valus and sentimental value.” This would mean (said Counsel for RH) “from her point of view, some of her possessions being disposed of without any notice or discussion aforethought”.
The judge summed up the situation:
“What we need to balance is the risk of her hoarding becoming so severe that her ability to live at the property becomes threatened (when everyone agrees that’s what’s in her best interests) with the risk of the impact on her of her possessions being removed – and they’re clearly important to her, because she’s brought them home.” (Judge)
The judge suggested devising a permissive order with two components: first, “items that pose a risk to her physical health – that covers the chicken bones” for immediate disposal, and second “other items which can only be disposed of with notice having been given, but then even if she’s not home or doesn’t want to permit entry, the local authority have access to go in and clea it out. The notice would be a note saying ‘we’re going to come back in a week’s time’, what was tried before she went into the care home”.
3. Road traffic sense
The judge raised a question about RH’s “road traffic sense” – saying that although concerns had been raised, “she coped quite well with traffic when she absconded from the care home”.
Counsel for the local authority said he hadn’t taken instructions on that point, but “someone could point out to her that it could be dangerous to go into the road to retrieve rubbish. My clients could reflect on that.”
The judge asked for a recital to be added to the order “to say that’s been considered”.
Counsel for RH said that “she’s out of her property pretty much all day every day, and hasn’t come to harm before, so it’s something to keep an eye on, but not an acute problem.”
The judge approved use of the key from the key safe to allow local authority carers to access RH’s property, and to clean the toilet, and to remove anything with an adverse impact on RH’s physical or mental health. The plan was for RH to return home on 18th July 2022 and the judge fixed a date for a review hearing (also remote) at 9.30am on 26th August 2022.
[UPDATE: The hearing planned for 26th August 2022 was vacated – we don’t know why. There will be another hearing and we’ll post it on our “Featured Hearings” page when we find out when it will be.]
Celia Kitzinger is co-director (with Gill Loomes-Quinn) of the Open Justice Court of Protection Project. She tweets @kitzingercelia