In B.C., a proceeding brought by a person under legal disability must be started by his or her litigation guardian. This often arises in the context of alleged elder abuse. A loved one may seek to remedy an incident of elder abuse (for example, undue influence), by bringing an action on behalf of the victim. However, what if the alleged victim of elder abuse denies the undue influence or other abuse, and does not want a claim to be brought on their behalf? This can be further complicated when the loved one bringing the claim on behalf of the victim ultimately benefits if that claim is successful (for example, by receiving part of the victim’s estate upon their death).
If the alleged victim insists that they have capacity to decide whether they want/need to bring a claim, and the loved one insists that they lack capacity, can the court order a medical assessment?
This was recently considered by the B.C. Supreme Court in Hambleton (Litigation Guardian of) v. Hambleton 2021 BCSC 1155. In Hambleton, a daughter took the position that her mother suffered from severe dementia, and that she lacked capacity to make decisions regarding her financial affairs and was subject to undue influence by her other daughter (Alice).
The mother transferred title to her property to herself and Alice, and took out a reverse mortgage. Her daughter started an action, on behalf of her mother, seeking to challenge and set aside the transfer. The mother said she was capable of making her own decisions, and said that the transfer was consistent with the terms of her will made back in 2010 (where there was no suggestion of lack of capacity). The mother retained her own lawyer and applied to strike the action which was brought in her name by her daughter (and to remove her daughter as litigation guardian).
The Court had previously ordered that the mother attend a mental capacity examination at a time and place to be arranged by her care center, before any further steps were taken in the litigation. While there is a presumption that a person is capable, there was some medical evidence from 2015-2016, which indicated that the mother suffered a mental health event and was involuntarily committed to a facility. There was a gap in the evidence as to whether the mother was capable, which needed to be addressed with a medical assessment.
The mother did not arrange with her care facility to attend a medical assessment as ordered. Eventually, she was discharged from that facility. Instead, the mother unilaterally attended an assessment with a geriatric psychiatrist. The doctor concluded that the mother had mild cognitive impairment but was capable of personal financial decision making, and had testamentary capacity to sign legal documents.
The daughter took the position that the doctor’s assessment was inadequate, and sought an order that her mother undergo a more extensive medical capacity evaluation.
The Court was satisfied that the assessment was adequate. It is an invasion of an individual’s rights to require them to undergo a mental capacity assessment, and the court should not make such an order without sufficient evidentiary basis for doing so. In this case, the mother had obtained an assessment to address the Court’s concern about capacity, and requiring her to undergo a further mental capacity assessment would not be appropriate. It would be stretching the court’s parens patriae jurisdiction (the Court’s powers to make orders protecting persons under disability or potential disability) too far.
As a result, the mother had established that she had the requisite capacity, and she could proceed with her application to remove her daughter as litigation guardian (and presumably with her application to strike the claim that her daughter brought on her behalf).
A competent adult can deal with their assets during their lifetime as they see fit, and there is a presumption of competency. A court will only order a mental capacity assessment in extraordinary circumstances. A court will certainly not order an assessment as a matter of course when there are allegations of undue influence or elder abuse. This case also serves as a reminder that care needs to be taken to ensure someone is actually under a legal disability before a claim is brought on their behalf (especially when they are opposed to taking the action).