THE number of people in Scotland living with a “welfare guardian” has more than doubled in the last decade, prompting calls for law reform.

A welfare guardian is appointed by a court to help a person who lacks capacity to takes decisions for themselves.

A relative usually takes the role, but it can also be someone from a local authority.

The system is most commonly used for people with learning disabilities or those with dementia.

A total of 17,101 people in Scotland were living with a welfare guardianship order by March this year, according to data published in a new report by the Mental Welfare Commission (MWC) released on Thursday.

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This figure is more than twice what it was in 2012 – 6400 – and it is the highest ever on record.

Of all granted guardianship orders in the last year, 94% were new orders and 6% were renewals.

Some of the latest data from MWC was affected by temporary measures introduced during the pandemic, but the overall trend in rising numbers continued.

The increase has led to complications for individuals, families and authorities using or hoping to use the welfare guardianship system, and has prompted calls for reform to help keep the process straightforward.

Suzanne McGuinness, executive director at MWC, said: “People who lack capacity because of learning disability, dementia or other conditions are some of the most vulnerable individuals in our community and have a right to be protected by the law.

“But the constant rise in use of welfare guardianship – and the difficulties this can cause for individuals, families and authorities – has led many, including the Commission, to support proposals for reform of the system, to make it less complex and better for the individual.”

She said new measures will be looked at when the MWC provides a detailed response to the recently-published Scottish Mental Health Law Review.

An MWC spokesperson added: “The question of how best to manage situations in which welfare guardianship currently come into use is part of that review.

“We will give a detailed response to the complete review document, but for now we can say that we agree with the review that it could be managed better and this is a priority. And we agree with their focus on the individual, not the process.”

Private guardians (meaning relatives or friends as opposed to local authorities) accounted for 73% of all welfare guardianships granted this year, which was similar to previous years, according to the MWC report.

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The most common primary diagnosis for those being cared for was learning disability (46%), followed by dementia (39%).

Most of the granted orders were for a period of five years or less (80%), while 16% were for six years or longer, and 4% were indefinite orders.

Kevin Stewart, Holyrood’s minister for mental wellbeing, said: “The Scottish Mental Health Law Review was tasked with reviewing our mental health and incapacity legislation in light of developments in international human rights, including the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and to consider where improvements could be made.

“Given the scope and complexity of the review, we will take time to carefully consider the recommendations on improvements to the guardianship process to help improve people’s experience of care and ensure that adults with impaired capacity are supported to maximise their decision-making ability.

“We will continue to promote supported decision making, enabling people to make their own decisions with support and where possible without the need for a guardianship order.”