Over the course of 2020, the number of UK adults with reduced mental capacity increased, and there are now more than two million UK adults that would be identified as having capacity issues. With the mental health impact of the pandemic, this is perhaps not surprising, but issues are longer-term, too, with the UK’s ageing population bringing an increased risk of dementia. The chances of developing the condition, or similar conditions, increase from one in 14 over the age of 65 to one in six over 80. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that about 55 million people have dementia, and it’s expected to rise to 78 million by 2030.
Whether from dementia or other causes, there are already an estimated two million in the UK at any one time who lack mental capacity and regulators are increasingly focused on protecting them. As the guidance from the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority (SRA) says, “we believe that if solicitors and law firms have a better understanding of people’s needs, they will be in a stronger position to provide high standards of service to their clients.”
In reality, the ability to have a better understanding of people’s decision making is dependent on how well legal professionals can identify any areas of reduced capacity. However, checks are usually only undertaken by firms for clients suspected of having reduced capacity from the outset, rather than aimed at assessing all individuals. Even when they are, the assessments are subjective and vary significantly between firms and even individuals within them.
This needs addressing. In fact, mental capacity screenings should be a non-negotiable for every client, and solicitors should have tools in place to deliver robust, consistent assessments across all clients and the market as a whole. That’s to protect them as much as the client.
On the hook
Take the common example of wills. Solicitors’ obligations are well established, starting with the “golden rule” set out in Kenwood v Adams (1975) to make enquiries about the testator’s capacity. Larke v Nugus (1979), meanwhile, established that the solicitor can be called on to give a statement “regarding the execution of the will and the circumstances surrounding it” to those involved in disputes around the will.
Finally, Feltham v Bouskell (2013) shows how far these obligations can extend. It confirmed that solicitors with concerns about mental capacity must take steps to satisfy themselves on the issue, but it went further. In that case, the solicitor was held negligent for having failed to chase up a medical report from the GP and delay preparing a will due to (unfounded) doubts about the client’s capacity.
Putting in place a consistent, objective and robust capacity assessment for all clients ensures firms don’t fall foul of these requirements. It also stands practitioners in good stead if wills or other client decisions are challenged. Without such a check at the time of instruction, it is much harder to prove or disprove capacity, even if a condition or deterioration occurs later.
Applying an objective process to the whole client ensures the quality and consistency of this assessment. With everyone treated in the same way, there’s no stigma either. Comentis’ solution features a Cognitive Assessment Engine that can be easily integrated into existing customer workflows and client journeys to be as unobtrusive as possible. The technology automates the capacity assessment, highlights any potential problems and captures the results, giving firms a fully consistent and auditable approach, so they are ready to answer any challenge from interested parties or from regulators.
Assessments are often avoided due to fears that they will be time-consuming and costly; this is especially true if there’s no obvious issue with capacity. However, automating and standardising the process creates efficiencies. A simple software as a service (SaaS) solution can reduce both the administration and financial burden, smoothing the process and automatically recording results. It eliminates not only the risk, but the hassle and admin side for practitioners.
The regulatory focus on these clients, the clear legal obligations, and an ageing population mean the topic of capacity is not going away any time soon. And with new technology now available to address this issue, the excuses for overlooking it are fading fast.
The ability to utilise digital capacity assessments is made simpler for legal professionals by being part of Arken.legal’s Will drafting software. The tech enables clients to easily build it into their best practice processes and provides an additional layer of protection for the client, as well as for their organisation as a whole.