NEARLY all applications to allow carers to make decisions for vulnerable people in Essex take longer than the legal time limit to be processed.

Rights charity VoiceAbility says the unacceptable delays mean people across the country are forced to live in care homes unlawfully and against their will.

Hospitals and care homes must apply to councils for permission to make decisions for anyone thought to lack the mental capacity to make them for themselves, such as those with dementia or serious mental health problems.

There is a legal time limit of 21 days for standard applications to be processed.

NHS Digital data shows Essex County Council dealt with 945 standard applications in 2019-20, but only 20 (2%) were completed within 21 days Care homes and hospitals can apply for authorisation up to 28 days in advance of when they plan to make decisions on behalf of a resident or patient.

If the decision needs to be made before the council can respond to a request for a standard authorisation, care homes and hospitals can use an urgent authorisation, which allows them to make decisions on the person's behalf for up to seven days.

This needs to be authorised by the council within that time.

Essex County Council also dealt with 975 urgent applications in 2019-20.

It took the council an average of 263 days to process urgent and standard requests – down from 515 days in the previous year.

The longest application took 1,792 days to complete.

Across England, 117,675 standard applications were dealt with, but only 24% of them were processed within 21 days.

The average waiting time was 142 days, five fewer than in 2018-19.

The Government has pledged to implement a more efficient system by April 2022, to replace the current Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards system.

Jonathan Senker, chief executive of VoiceAbility, said: “Being deprived of your liberty is one of the most serious things that can happen to a person.

"It is unacceptable that so many people are being deprived of their liberty without timely due process and legal safeguards.

“One of the most common reasons for a Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS) application is to move somebody into a care home or nursing home or require them to remain there.

“While waiting for DoLS applications to be looked at, some people will lose the very skills needed to make their return home easier to achieve.

"Long waits lock people in limbo, breach their rights, and can make it harder for them to live independently in the future.”

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK's charity director, said she hoped said she hoped the system to be introduced by the Government would tackle delays.

She added: "For the sake of the many highly vulnerable older people languishing without any legal protection at all, some of them in wholly inappropriate settings, unable to leave, it was essential that the current system of DoLS be replaced.

“However, a new legislative framework will only work if social care is properly funded - everyone should be able to get good quality care when they need it.”

Jon Richards, Unison's head of local government, said a decade of cuts was to blame for delays and that the pandemic had exacerbated an already desperate situation.

"This year's lockdowns and other restrictions have seen councils' income plummet and their obligations soar, without the support needed from Westminster.

"This has spread limited resources more thinly."

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “The Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards system is due to be replaced by the Liberty Protection Safeguards, which will improve and extend protections to people that need them.

“Until then, it is important that care homes and hospitals continue to make applications and that local authorities consider them to protect the human rights of individuals that may lack relevant mental capacity.”