The Statutory Guidance for Community Protection Notices (CPNs) says that ‘Particular care should be taken to consider how use of the power might impact on more vulnerable members of society’. This would include groups such as the homeless, young people, or those with mental illnesses.
We are currently in touch with a woman with bipolar disorder, who was issued with a Community Protection Warning (CPW) on the basis of unfounded allegations made against her by her neighbour. The stress of the CPW led the woman to have a bipolar relapse, after which the council issued her with a CPN and then a breach notice.
This tragic episode that shows that, far from some councils taking ‘particular care’ in using these powers against those with mental health problems, they are using them only too readily – with the consequence of worsening mental health episodes among those affected.
The lady concerned had a dispute with her neighbours about a fence panel. After this, she says, the neighbours started a campaign of false and malicious allegations against her and her family, including reporting her for child neglect, for looking out of the window, putting the bin on a shared path, listening to TV that could be overheard, listening to music in the garden for 30 minutes, and fixing wall art on her walls. She says that some of these allegations were fabricated (such as accusations of banging on walls), and some of the allegations dealt with normal family life (such as TV and music). The neighbours were recording her in her own house without her knowledge or consent. Police and children’s services visited but had no concerns and treated it as a malicious call or took no further action.
Yet the council’s ASB services took the allegations more seriously and issued the lady with a CPW. She said that the officers didn’t seem to want to hear her side of events. The stress of this legal order led to a worsening of the lady’s condition, and she had to stop her work as a classroom assistant. In an increasingly unstable condition, the lady shouted in her garden at the neighbours, accusing them of fabricating evidence and recording her. This incident led to her being issued with a CPN which ordered her to ‘cease shouting or talking in a derogatory fashion so that it can be heard by your neighbours’.
After the CPN was issued, she had a severe bipolar episode. This involved shouting and swearing in her house, including ranting about the unfairness of the CPN and the way in which she perceives she was being targeted. She says ‘I couldn’t stop ranting, I couldn’t calm down’. She was taking sleeping pills to treat the sleeping problems that result from bipolar episodes. She also increased her normal medication in an attempt to get the episode under control. In response to reports of her unstable conduct from her neighbours and the police, the council issued her with a breach notice for violating the CPN. These means that she is being prosecuted for having a bipolar episode; if convicted, she would have a criminal record.
The council was aware of the woman’s mental health condition, which had been explained to officers in detail by her husband; he made clear that she was receiving treatment and that the condition was normally under control. The ASB team was also aware that she had repeatedly signed off work due to stress, and at one stage was admitted to hospital with extremely high blood pressure. In its breach notice, the council’s ASB officer offered to make a referral ‘to services who may be able to assist you with your issues’ – yet this offer of ‘help’ was undercut by the statement that she had committed a ‘criminal offence’ and they would be ‘instructing the Legal Team to make an application to the Magistrates Court for this breach’.
The woman’s mental health breakdown that led to the breach notice was precipitated by her experience of being issued with a CPW and a CPN. This is hardly surprising: many of the CPN recipients we have spoken to over the years have found it to be an extremely stressful experience, which led to a major loss of sleep and even challenged their mental stability. For a person with stress-related bipolar disorder, this is far worse, with more serious consequences.
Far from treating a woman with a mental health condition with ‘particular care’, the council robotically pursued the neighbour’s allegations against her – allegations that had been dismissed by other professional services. Far from taking ‘particular care’, they took no care at all, sparking a bipolar episode and then deciding that this bipolar episode is a ‘criminal offence’ that should be prosecuted.
This is not only a violation of the statutory guidance, of due process, and of equalities duties – it is also entirely senseless. Here is a lady who, notwithstanding her mental health problem, is a productive member of society – a teaching assistant and a mother. She used to work for children’s services, and has never before had any issues with the police or with any of her neighbours.
The council did not ‘help’ but contributed to her breakdown. It should be ashamed of itself.