In this chapter we identify and describe the types of guardianships provided for by Ontario law, and we describe the mechanisms that are currently in place in Ontario to monitor guardians and ensure that they fulfill their responsibilities and obligations to ‘incapable’ persons. We also consider the mechanisms that are available to prevent guardians from misusing or abusing their powers; to ensure that guardianships are not maintained any longer than necessary; to provide processes by which people who have been declared ‘incapable’ can reassert their capacity; and to complain about the action or inaction of a guardian.
A. Overview of Monitoring and Accountability of Guardians under the SDA
The key legislation dealing with guardianships in Ontario is the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992 (“SDA”). The SDA provides basic definitions of capacity, establishes the presumption of capacity and creates a regime to allow for substitute decision-making for those persons found to lack capacity to make specific types of decisions. The SDA outlines three basic systems for putting in place three types of substitute decision-makers: powers of attorney, statutory guardians and court-appointed guardians.
The Act also creates the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee (“PGT”), outlines the powers of the PGT and the court in relation to substitute decision-makers and ‘incapable’ persons, and outlines the powers and obligations of guardians and substitute decision-makers. The regulations to the Act deal with capacity assessments, the accounts and records of attorneys and guardians, and applications to replace the PGT as statutory guardian .
The SDA accommodates issue-specific and fluctuating capacity by restricting the attribution of incapacity to particular areas of decision-making. There are no findings of global incapacity. A person is found to be capable or ‘incapable’ of specific types of decisions, such as decisions about property or decisions about personal care.
There are certain protections intended to ensure that guardians are appointed only where no less restrictive alternative exists. Persons are assumed to be capable unless there is good reason to believe otherwise. When questioned, a person’s capacity is determined on a task-by-task basis. Under the Health Care Consent Act capacity is evaluated (or re-evaluated) for each health care decision. Even once declared to be ‘incapable’ of a particular type of decision by a doctor or capacity assessor, a person has the right to challenge that finding before the Consent and Capacity Board.
Once a guardian is appointed, however, the SDA grants that guardian substantial powers to make decisions on the adult’s behalf as well as the legal authority to execute those decisions. While the SDA encourages guardians to involve ‘incapable’ persons in the decision-making process to the extent possible, decisions are made by the guardian and not the ‘incapable’ individual. Under the SDA, guardianship effectively deprives an adult of legal capacity to make decisions and transfers that capacity to another person.
The SDA offers individuals subject to a guardianship little in the way of effective protection if their guardians abuse their powers or fail to carry out their statutory obligations. Under the SDA guardians are not subjected to any form of rigorous supervision or oversight. Without proper monitoring and supervision, it is not possible to ensure that guardians actually abide by the provisions of the SDA intended to protect the rights of ‘incapable’ individuals. In particular, the processes related to court-appointed guardians privilege guardians, make it difficult for an ‘incapable’ person to defend his/her rights, and consequently leave ‘incapable’ persons vulnerable to abuse.
B. Legal Presumption of Capacity and Definition of Incapacity in the SDA
A key protection of a person’s legal autonomy offered by the SDA is the Act’s acknowledgement of the presumption of capacity. Sections 2(1), 2(2) and 2(3) outline this presumption as follows:
2.(1) a person who is eighteen years of age or more is presumed to be capable of entering into a contract.
2.(2), a person who is sixteen years of age or more is presumed to be capable of giving or refusing consent in connection with his or her own personal care.
2.(3) a person is entitled to rely on the presumption of capacity with respect to another person unless he or she has reasonable grounds to believe that the other person is ‘‘incapable’’ of entering into the contract or of giving or refusing consent, as the case may be.
This presumption enhances autonomy and promotes the inherent dignity, worth and equality of all persons. All persons are assumed to be capable and able to participate fully in society and all aspects of decision-making affecting their lives. No one is expected to prove their capacity. Clear evidence is required to challenge the presumption of capacity.
Additionally, the SDA allows individuals to take action to protect their rights regardless of their capacity status. Section 3 deems a person capable to instruct counsel for the purposes of defending his/her rights as listed in the SDA. Section 3 provides that:
3.(1) if the capacity of a person who does not have legal representation is in issue in a proceeding under this Act,
(a) the court may direct the Public Guardian and Trustee to arrange for legal representation to be provided for the person.
(b) the person shall be deemed to have capacity to retain and instruct counsel
This section addresses the potential vulnerability that an ‘incapable’ person may encounter if s/he were not able to retain a lawyer due to a finding of incapacity to make other kinds of decisions. Unfortunately, in many situations section 3 might not function as intended. For lawyers, a statement of presumed capacity to instruct may be of little practical use if they cannot actually obtain instructions from the client. Clients may be too ill to give instructions, they may not wish to participate, they may not trust a lawyer appointed for them, or they may lack capacity to give instructions. A lawyer is obliged to do all s/he can to accommodate the client and find supports that may allow the client to give instructions. However, in some cases, despite the presumption of capacity to instruct, a client may not be able to provide instructions, even with support and accommodation. In such instances, a lawyer, although able to represent the person, is restricted to functioning within very limited parameters that severely compromise the lawyer’s ability to advocate effectively for the client. Essentially, the role of counsel in such cases is necessarily limited to ensuring that all proper processes are followed and client’s rights are upheld.
Section 6 of the SDA provides a definition of incapacity to manage property. A person is ‘incapable’ to manage property if the person is not able to understand information that is relevant to making a decision in the management of his or her property, or is not able to appreciate the reasonably foreseeable consequences of a decision or lack of decision. This section recognizes that the quality of a decision is not a basis for determining whether a person has capacity. This promotes the principle of autonomy by offering some protection to persons who might otherwise be susceptible to findings of incapacity on the basis that their decisions were not in accord with what others would see as proper, wise or rational.
Section 45 of the SDA provides a similar definition of incapacity with respect to personal care. Personal care decisions include decisions