Two separate conditions

Published: Wednesday, 15 January 2014

THE action by Canal & River Trust concerning Maggie did not relate to her disability. In fact she is not reported as disabled but, allegedly, has an illness. It is important not to confuse these two quite separate conditions, writes Mike Todd.

Secondly, the CaRT action did not of itself create an 'intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment' for her as reported—she did that for herself.

Same legal standards

Unless and until a person is legally declared unable to make decisions for themselves (e.g. under the Mental Capacity Act, or Sectioned as mentally ill) then they remain subject to the same legal standards as the rest of society.

In this case, the person concerned had decided to engage in a legal challenge to the fundamental basis of CaRT, namely that it has the right to require boaters to obtain a licence for their boat to remain on the canals, and failing to do that, to seek Court approval to remove an unlicenced boat. Others, too, have attempted similar challenges.

In our society this is their legal right and to remove that right would strike at the fundamentals of our freedoms. Maggie's display alongside her boat made it clear that she totally rejected these rights of CaRT and intended to pursue her point of view whatever it took.

The Courts to decide

However, the right to challenge CaRT does not mean that the challenge is right—that ultimately is for the Courts to decide. Really serious cases can go as far as the European courts. In this case, a judge decided that 'Maggie' was wrong and that CaRT could enforce their right in a manner prescribed by law. No eviction is pleasant, and from what I have read, this one was no better or worse than others happening daily. Sadly, current changes in the benefit system (especially the so-called Bedroom Tax) will probably increase the number taking place.

Forcible removal, whether for rental reasons, for child protection or for violation of visa restrictions is frequently fraught with emotional tension and the various agencies have to be trained to handle them (their post trauma distress may be at least equal and in need of support from their employers). Just because the circumstances are unpleasant does not mean either that the agencies are wrong (or unethical) nor that the person being removed should be left in place.

Into conflict

A developed society has many rules which seek to balance the rights of different people or groups where their separate rights and aspirations come into conflict (such a case is happening in London where land-based residents claim that their rights are incompatible with those of boaters living on the adjoining canal). The absence of such rules could only result in mob rule—there is just a tinge of such populist emotions in the reaction to this case. In the end, we are better served by making such decisions in a rational and considered environment (e.g. tribunals and Courts).

Having spent 20 years working with adults with a learning disability, one of the ways in which they are diminished is when it is assumed that all of their behaviour, particularly that which would not be tolerated by a person without such a label, should be explained by the mere fact that they have a disability. We saw many cases where the individual has learnt how to exploit that.

Not disabled

Maggie, in any case, is not said to be disabled— she must be intellectually above average if she, as reported, has qualified as a solicitor. She has chosen to champion a cause in which she believes passionately. In the right context, such people are seen as saints or martyrs, despite the fact that many regimes use the mental illness label to justify repressing them. One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter.

Difficult cases make bad law. Just because this case has caused both the subject and others looking at the reports to feel distressed is not—of itself—a reason to decide that CaRT or the other agencies have acted incorrectly. It requires a much deeper consideration before such a conclusion could be justified.