A Hampshire carer was forced to wait more than six years for a decision on whether they could act on behalf of a vulnerable patient, new figures show.
A deprivation of liberty safeguard is put in place when a person in care is judged to be incapable of making decisions for themselves, in order to keep them from harm.
Care homes, hospitals and other organisations have to ask for permission from the local authority to use them, and they are generally only deployed for people with dementia or severe mental health issues.
Legally, 'standard' applications must be processed within 21 days – but figures from NHS England show the 5,015 completed applications in Hampshire took 173 days on average to be completed in the year to March 2022.
And one application took more than six years to be finalised.
Just 18% of standard applications were completed within the legal time limit in 2021-22 – though this was up from 12% the year before.
Across England, the average time to complete an application stood at 153 days last year, a rise on 148 in 2020-21.
A recent report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights called the delays "unacceptable".
Mind, a mental health charity, warned that taking away someone's liberty was one of the most serious powers the state has, and deserves "the most rigorous and prompt scrutiny".
Rheian Davies, the charity's head of legal, said: "The fact that these time limits have been regularly breached, and seriously so, without intervention from the Government, is very concerning.
"They must act now to make sure these applications are processed lawfully and people’s rights are respected.”
Nationally, the number of new applications increased from 255,740 in 2020-21 to 267,080 last year.
The proportion of 'urgent' applications – where an organisation grants itself an emergency, temporary safeguard while their application is being processed – has also risen.
In 2021-22 there were 150,740 urgent applications – including 2,495 in Hampshire – up from 137,515 the year before.
Caroline Abrahams, director of Age UK, a charity for the elderly, said the figures were reflective of a social care system which is "no longer fit for purpose".
"Backlogs in applications are in many ways a symptom of an entire system which is overburdened, under-resourced and woefully short of the funding that it needs," she said.
"The new Prime Minister must make social care a priority, providing the funding required not only to safeguard the liberty of older people but to provide them with the safe, effective and dignified care and support they need.”
Safeguards are generally used for older people, and particularly older women – last year 29% of safeguarded individuals in England were women aged over 85.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said:“We know the system needs reforming, which is why we consulted on changes to Liberty Protection Safeguards in order to reduce waiting times and put the welfare of those affected first.
“These changes would introduce a duty to consult with the person affected and those close to them, reduce the number of assessments, and increase the number of organisations who can authorise safeguards.”