Practice code sparks fresh fears on mental health tribunal safeguards

Fears that safeguards within new mental health legislation will be weakened are growing after a leaked report revealed plans to make people under section wait an extra fortnight for a tribunal.

The draft code of practice, seen by Community Care, outlines plans to extend from 28 to 42 days the time before mental health patients must face a tribunal to provide legal authority for their

Time-limits for treatment orders would be extended from six months to a year under the plans.

Tim Spencer-Lane, co-chair of the Mental Health Alliance, said: “This is an unacceptable proposal and a fundamental shift from what the alliance and joint committee [on the draft Mental Health Bill] were consulted on.”

He said the plans would “reduce the safeguards far below those in the current Mental Health Act”.

The code of practice would accompany the Mental Health Bill, the draft of which provided for a mental health tribunal to authorise detention beyond 28 days, replacing the existing mental health review tribunal.

However, two months ago, Community Care revealed the government had admitted it would not be able to provide for the expected doubling in the number of tribunal hearings under the proposals, and was looking to extend the 28-day limit (news, 13 October).

It was believed at one time to be considering introducing paper-based and fast-track tribunals.

Spencer-Lane said: “It is likely that the government has realised its original proposals are unworkable and rather than investing more resources in the tribunal system and ensuring that numbers under compulsion are kept to a minimum, it is looking to further reduce patient safeguards.”

The draft code also proposes that tribunal panels need not include a doctor, against the provisions of the current legislation, which states membership must include a consultant psychiatrist.

Spencer-Lane said such a move “may contravene human rights legislation which requires that hearings must be based on objective medical evidence”.

The bill had been expected to be introduced at the beginning of this month.

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