To empower or to protect? Constructing the 'vulnerable adult' in English law and public policy.
Dunn MC., Clare IC., Holland AJ.
Recent judgments in England and Wales have confirmed and extended the High Court's inherent jurisdiction to make declarations about interventions into the lives of 'vulnerable', rather than simply 'mentally incapacitated' adults. We argue that this shift is problematic because of the ways that the 'vulnerable adult' has been constructed in order to justify such interventions. The accounts of vulnerability drawn upon in the constructive process highlight the person's inherent characteristics and/or the circumstances within which that person might be denied the ability to make a free choice. Such an approach parallels the public policy protection of 'vulnerable adults' from abuse in care services and the statutory protection of 'vulnerable witnesses' in the criminal justice system, and is built on an external and objective assessment of being 'at risk', rather than an understanding of the subjective experience of being vulnerable. We argue that this imbalance might act to disempower the 'vulnerable adult' by reducing that person's life to a series of risk factors that fail, first, to place him/her at the heart of the decision to intervene, and, secondly, to engage adequately with the experiences through which that person ascribes meaning to his/her life.