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Easy come, but can’t go

Another crucial but neglected aspect of the reform concerns the ease with which relatives can deprive a person from his or her legal capacity and put him under their guardianship, often sending him eventually to an institution.

“What happens is that a family member goes to a local court with a psychiatric report which says a person has a diagnosis of a mental health problem or an intellectual disability. The court then deprives the person of his legal capacity. Often the person whose capacity is in question is even not informed that this is happening. And once one is stripped of his legal capacity and is placed under guardianship, he’s deprived of numerous rights – to vote, to work, to manage his finances, to decide where to live, to marry”, explains Oliver Lewis, executive director of Mental Disability Advocacy Center.

According to Bulgarian Helsinki Committee about 70 percent of the population of institutions is deprived of legal capacity. These people can be placed in a social care institution by their guardian without their consent, for life, and without the right of appeal.  This is an administrative, not a court procedure, even though it is actual deprivation of liberty. And it is a vicious circle – once you are deprived of legal capacity, you have no legal power to start a procedure to get it back. While in institution, the properties of these people are managed by their guardians. Currently the Sofia Prosecutor’s office investigates twenty cases of property fraud, the victims being people with mental illnesses. So, even though most people enter institutions because of lack of support systems in society, there is a considerable number that is in there because of someone else’s greed.

Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities provides that everyone has the right to legal capacity. It also provides that people should have access to support if they need it in exercising legal capacity. The convention has been signed by Bulgaria and Romania, and even ratified by Serbia. This means that governments should change their laws – in the direction of supported decision-making instead of fully stripping people of legal capacity.

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