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Court of Protection: respect for religious views

Re P (Capacity to tithe inheritance) [2014] ““ having respect for P’s religious views has been upheld by the Court of Protection

This case was brought by a local authority Deputy for Property and Affairs for a 40 year old man (“MS”) with schizoaffective disorder.   Evidence was submitted that MS believed he was a “messianic figure” with delusional religious ideas, including a firm belief that he was the first prophet outside the Godhead: only the Father, Son and Holy Ghost were greater beings than him.

MS wanted to “tithe” 10% of his inheritance to the Church of Latter Day Saints.   Tithing is the practice of giving one tenth of one’s earnings or annual farm produce for religious purposes and is referred to in the Bible.   The amount MS wanted to tithe was around £7,000, which the local authority said was about a year’s worth of MS’s living expenses.   If he gave the tithe, then he would be left with around six years’ worth of money if he continued to spend at the same rate.

The local authority applied to the Court of Protection to determine whether MS had capacity to tithe and if not, whether this arrangement should be authorised in his best interests.

District Judge Eldergill considered evidence from MS’s mother who thought he could be under pressure from the church to donate his money and that he remained “very vulnerable financially.”

The local authority pointed out that making this tithe would mean that MS’s capital would drop to the level at which he needs to claim state benefits “some 56 weeks sooner than will be the case if no donation is made.

District Judge Eldergill rejected these submissions. He said:

When people with finite resources give money to charity [“¦] they are not required to calculate the effect of their gift on future state benefit claims or to regard themselves as precluded from acts of charity.”

There was conflicting evidence from MS’s consultant psychiatrist, Dr M, and a Special Visitor (Dr T) requested by the Court.   The judge preferred Dr T’s evidence that MS’s desire to give his money to church was “part of his religious beliefs but not in my opinion part of his delusional belief system.”

MS acknowledged in his evidence that he had a “Mount Everest of a credibility problem” to surmount, but told the Court he prized his independence and autonomy and his decision to give a tithe to the church (even if he was not a member) was “both rational and Biblical.”   MS did not consider himself to be exploited and believed that charitable giving was his prerogative.

District Judge Eldergill set out   the law relating to mental capacity and gifts, highlighting that “whether an individual has capacity may depend in part on the nature and complexity of the decisions to be made.” He said “the fact that a person has a grandiose belief with a religious content does not demonstrate that the whole of their religion is delusionally-based and caused by mental illness.”   In the judge’s view MS had capacity to tithe and had litigation capacity (contrary to the opinions of both expert psychiatrists).   District Judge Eldergill said that medical evidence is only part of the evidence, and that evidence from other professionals, conduct observed by the court and submissions by the individual were also important.   He thought the issues in this case were not particularly complex, MS understood them well and he presented his case very ably.

DJ Eldergill said that even if he had found that MS lacked capacity, he would have authorised the tithe on his behalf as being in his best interests.   The law has always sought to show respect for religious belief and freedom of consciousness and the judge praised the local authority deputy for bringing the application, as they had been respectful of MS’s “dignity, wishes and feelings.”

This is another transparent judgment from the “Secret Court” showing how carefully the judge will analyse the evidence before him and consider the importance of P’s own views, wishes and feelings.   As District Judge Eldergill commented “good reasons are required to interfere in matters of conscience and spiritual belief,” and in this case the Court did not think it necessary to interfere.

For further information about Court of Protection issues, please contact a member of our Court of Protection team.