The legal concept of “capacity” is central to the law related to decision- making, serving as both its rationale and the threshold for its application. Generally, persons who are considered to have legal capacity are entitled to make decisions for themselves and are held responsible for those decisions,

including decisions that others may consider reckless or unwise. On the other hand, persons who have been determined to lack legal capacity in a particular domain or for a particular decision may lose the right to make decisions for themselves independently in that area: others will be responsible for making decisions on their behalf, and can in law be held accountable for how those decisions are made.

Legal capacity has been defined in different ways at different times and for different purposes.

  • At some times and in some jurisdictions, it has been tied to the diagnosis of particular disabilities, in what has been referred to as the “status” approach to defining capacit
  • At other times, an “outcome” approach has been taken, which focusses on whether the individual in question is making “good” decisions – that is, whether the decisions that the individual is making are within the bounds of what might be considered reasonabl.[56]
  • Ontario’s approach, like that of many other common law jurisdictions, is based on a cognitive and functional approach. This approach emphasizes the ability to make a specific decision or type of decision at a particular time, evaluating the abilities of the individual to understand, retain and evaluate information relevant to a decision. This approach was adopted following the extensive work resulting in the 1990 Report in the Enquiry on Mental Competency, chaired by David Weisstub.[57]

Because the test for legal capacity determines the threshold for the application of the law, and because the consequences of a determination regarding legal capacity may be momentous, approaches to legal capacity are highly contested. The relatively abstract nature of the concept of legal capacity, embedded as it is in multiple intersecting legal, ethical, medical and social concepts and realities, makes these debates challenging.

Adding to the challenge is the difficulty of operationalizing the concept of legal capacity, particularly the nuanced approach adopted in Ontario’s laws. It may be difficult to disentangle implementation issues from shortfalls in the conception itself.

  • In this Final Report, Ontario’s systems for assessing legal capacity are dealt with in Chapter

Finally, the concept of legal capacity and the critiques of it are closely tied to the ongoing debate regarding the concept of “supported decision-making” as an alternative to substitute decision-making, in that some models of supported decision- making are grounded in a proposed fundamental shift in the approach to legal capacity.

Ontario, like other common law jurisdictions, employs an approach to legal capacity and decision-making based on substitute decision-making. Under the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992 (SDA) and Health Care Consent Act, 1996 (HCCA), where a person does not meet the threshold for legal capacity and a decision is required, another person – a substitute decision-maker (SDM) – will be in some way appointed to make that decision. In recent years, the social model of disability, which locates disability within society rather than the individual and focusses on social and environment barriers to inclusion, has been more widely accepted. As well, human rights approaches have continued to grow in influence both internationally and domestically. In keeping with these evolutions, voices have urged a re-examination of the substitute decision-making model and the development of alternatives. The term “supported decision-making” is often used to refer to these alternatives. There has also been some exploration of the concept of “co-decision-making”. Urgency has been added to this discussion by the creation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD),[58] ratified by Canada March 11, 2010, which addresses the issue in Article 12.

There are two broad approaches to supported decision-making:

  • Supported decision-making as one of a spectrum of alternatives: In this approach, substitute decision-making is a last resort, where an individual’s decision-making needs are too complex for other less restrictive approach The concept of legal capacity continues to operate as a threshold for determining appropriate approaches to decision-making for particular individuals.
  • Supported decision-making as a complete paradigm shift: In this approach, supported decision-making replaces substitute decision-makin All individuals have legal capacity in all circumstances.

Both views were expressed during the LCO’s consultations, as well as the view that supported decision-making is not an appropriate approach to incorporate into Ontario law.

Issues related to concepts of legal capacity and supported decision-making are among the most controversial in this area of the law, as well as the most difficult. They raise profound conceptual and ethical questions, as well as considerable practical challenges.

It is not possible in this limited space to thoroughly analyze all of the issues associated with models of decision-making. The literature is voluminous, and different legal systems have adopted a range of approaches.

  • The Discussion Paper provides an overview of approaches to decision- making in Part Three, I.

This Chapter is focussed on the question of reforms to Ontario laws. It adopts as its basis the analytical framework suggested by the LCO Framework principles, and takes into account Ontario’s legal history and current context, the diversity of needs and circumstances, and the aspirations and concerns voiced through the LCO consultations.


It is helpful to keep in mind, when considering laws related to legal capacity and decision-making, two aspects of these laws: the realities of making decisions with or on behalf of someone else; and the determination of who is legally accountable for any decisions that are reached.

Decision-making practices include all those values and daily practices with which those who surround a person with impaired decision-making abilities approach the practical realities of reaching particular decisions. This might include, for example, processes such as consulting with the person affected or others who have a close relationship with the person. It might also include the criteria or considerations which are brought to bear in the process, such as what the affected individual’s goals are or have been, what might produce the best quality of life for the affected individual, and so on.

Decision-making practices take place, by and large, in the private sphere and are inherently relatively informal. By their nature, they are difficult to monitor and to regulate, tied up as they frequently are in family and social histories and dynamics. Whether these informal interactions are on the whole positive and supportive of the achievement of autonomy, inclusion, dignity and security for the individual, or whether they are negative or outright abusive, in most cases only becomes visible when the family unit interacts with the public realm. In some cases, such interactions are quite rare.

It was notable during the LCO’s public consultations with family members and individuals directly affected that while some had clearly undertaken considerable research related to their legal roles, the vast majority of participants who were either receiving or providing assistance in the form of substitute decision-making had only a very minimal knowledge of Ontario’s thorough legislative requirements regarding decision-making practices. Participants were not always clear even as to the difference between a will and a power of attorney document, or between a guardianship and a power of attorney, or other basics of the legislative framework. Very few substitute decision-makers (SDM) were aware of the duty to keep records or accounts or any of the other specific requirements of the role. Practically speaking, decision-making practices were rooted in family roles and history, the nature of the relationship, and a personal sense of the ethical obligations involved: the law was mainly understood as a potential tool for carrying out family roles and duties. In practice, most families have very little interaction wi