If you’re interested in, affected by, or use, the Mental Capacity Act or the Mental Health Act, then I can’t recommend enough that you get over to the Essex Autonomy Project webpages and check them out. The Essex Autonomy Project is based in the Philosophy Department at the University of Essex. Their well researched and clearly written Green Papers and Research Briefings give excellent summaries of issues in mental health and mental capacity law, often providing interesting nuggets of historical information, tracing the evolution of ideas like ‘best interests’ and the ‘inherent jurisdiction’, and even introducing a comparative flavour with descriptions of practices in other jurisdictions. My personal favourite is the report on the history of consent, which I’d make required reading on any medical ethics course.
But aside from producing freely available and high quality resources on mental health and capacity law, one of the best things about the Essex Autonomy Project are their events. Of course, there are loads of events for those with an interest in mental capacity and mental health law, but being organised by philosophers these have a rather different flavour. In part this is because they can, as philosophers, help to clarify ideas and concerns and point to solutions suggested by philosophers. There’s something very therapeutic about philosophers’ ability to take your incoherent rumblings about a particular problem in law or social care, and transmute it into a clearly articulated “issue”. But actually, I think the truly exciting thing that EAP can offer comes from their unique social position as philosophers. The Mental Capacity Act and the Mental Health Acts straddle multiple social tensions – tensions between disabled people and professionals, tensions between different kinds of health and social care professionals, tensions between lawyers and health and social care professionals… As philosophers, the EAP staff somehow manage to transcend those differing perspectives, those tribal outlooks, those disciplinary blinkers, and it leaves them in a unique position to mediate discussions between people from a range of backgrounds. At the summer school I attended last year the quality of the teaching was really high (on both law and philosophy) and I learnt a lot of new things, but I can honestly say that it was the space for well mediated discussion and debate from a whole range of perspectives that really excited me. The experience was so much more interactive than traditional conference style learning events, and the debates and conversations were continued in the evening (in a pub in the rather charming village of Wivenhoe). I have a particularly happy memory of climbing over stiles and fields on a starlit night, with a small tipsy army of social workers, doctors, lawyers, philosophers, so busy chattering about liberty and autonomy they got lost in the woods.
Anyway, if you’d like to get lost in mental health and capacity law for a few days, consider attending some of their events. I’ll definitely be attending the event on capacity assessments, and with such a diverse range of speakers planned I predict fireworks – but the good kind. And if you’re working with the mental capacity or mental health act, then I really really really recommend the summer school. No matter what level of knowledge about the Mental Capacity Act or Mental Health Act you have, you’ll definitely find it accessible and rewarding. It will involve philosophy, but without the obfuscation.