NHS Trusts must do more to protect detained patients from suicide

NHS bodies face tougher requirements on preventing patients detained under the Mental Health Act from killing themselves, after a ruling in the House of Lords last week.

In a case brought by the daughter of a mental heath patient who committed suicide in 2004, Law Lords ruled that the right to life, under the Human Rights Act, placed duties on public bodies to prevent suicides among detained patients.

It also said that, where patients posed a “real and immediate risk” of suicide, health bodies had to do “all that can reasonably be expected of them” to prevent them from taking their lives.

Carol Savage’s suicide

The House of Lords ruled that South Essex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust failed to protect Carol Savage, who escaped from Runwell Hospital, where she was being detained, and took her own life.

A number of charities, including Mind and Inquest, intervened in the case.

Mind’s head of legal, Tracy Jenkins, said: “This historic decision marks a turning point for mental health inpatients and their families, and should provide a stricter regime of security and care for those who are at risk when they are at their most vulnerable.”

Giving judgement, Lord Rodger said that if a hospital failed to implement a proper system for supervising mentally-ill patients, and a patient was able to commit suicide as a result, the trust would have violated the patient’s right to life.

Real and immediate risk

Also, where a patient posed a “real and immediate” risk of suicide, health bodies must do all they reasonably can to prevent them from taking their own life.

He added that if a patient died as a result of negligent treatment from a doctor or nurse, the health body would not be liable as long as they were found to have hired competent and properly trained staff. The practitioner would be personally liable, however.

Fighting for compensation

Savage’s daughter, Anna, has been fighting for compensation since 2004. In December 2006, the High Court dismissed her claim saying she would have to prove “gross negligence” on the part of the NHS Trust.

Anna Savage argued that as mental health patients are held against their will in the care of the state they should be treated in the same way as prisoners, for whom prison authorities must take steps to prevent suicides under law.

The Court of Appeal then overturned the High Court ruling, and the appeal court’s judgement was upheld last week by the Lords, who turned down an appeal by the trust.

The Savage family may now seek substantial compensation in the High Court.

Long period of uncertainty

A spokesperson for the trust said: “The decision brings to an end a long period of uncertainty as to whether the Human Rights Act would apply in these circumstances.  The trust is pleased that this issue has been resolved. The claim brought can now proceed to a trial of the substantive issues. The trust wishes to extend its sympathy and thoughts to the family who have suffered a great loss.”

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