Legal challenge over ‘discriminatory’ system for investigating mental health detention deaths

Challenge centres on lack of independent investigations into deaths of people detained under the Mental Health Act

"Liberating" outsourcing Picture credit: Oliver Rudkin/UCF/Rex Features
"Liberating" outsourcing Picture credit: Oliver Rudkin/UCF/Rex Features

A judicial review of the NHS’s refusal to allow an independent investigation into the death of a woman detained under the Mental Health Act will begin at the High Court on Thursday 25th July.

Legal representatives from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will argue that the fact deaths of people detained under the Act are not automatically subject to independent investigations is discriminatory and a breach of human rights legislation.

Deaths in prisons or police cells automatically trigger an independent investigation.

Wendy Hewitt, deputy director of legal at the EHRC, said: “Anyone detained against their will in an institution is in a very vulnerable situation. If they die, it is essential that there is an independent investigation.”

“The risks of an institution investigating its own actions, as in this case, are obvious and it also means that lessons that could reduce the chances of other people dying may be overlooked,” Hewitt added.

Deborah Coles, co-director of the charity Inquest, said that ministers had provided “no good reason” why people detained in hospitals under the Mental Health Act should “receive an inferior investigation to those who die anywhere else by the State”.

“There is overwhelming evidence that the current system for investigating deaths in mental health detention is not fit for purpose,” said Coles.

The legal challenge is funded by the EHRC and is being undertaken by Dr Michael Antoniou, whose wife Jane died at a London hospital in 2010 while detained under the Mental Health Act. Mrs Antoniou was under the care of the Central and North West London NHS Trust at the time.

The trust launched its own investigation into Mrs Antoniou’s death but refused Dr Antoniou’s request for an independent investigation. Andrew Lansley, health secretary at the time, also refused to launch an independent investigation.

In October 2011 Dr Antoniou was granted permission to seek judicial review of the decisions.

An earlier inquest into Jane Antoniou’s death was critical of Central and Northwest London NHS Trust’s risk management.

Dr Antoniou said moves to block an independent review of his wife’s death raised “high levels of suspicion” that agencies were trying to avoid public criticism.

“So I am still left wondering as to exactly what happened the night Janey passed away and if anything could have been done to avoid her death. All of this concern I believe would have been avoided if an independent body had conducted the investigation from the outset,” he said.

is Community Care’s community editor

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