High court rules in favour of people detained in psychiatric hospitals

Thousands of mental health patients could be
able to claim compensation following high court test case rulings
that the government breached the human rights of people
compulsorily detained in psychiatric hospitals.

A judge found that breaches occurred because
patients sectioned under the Mental Health Act 1983 did not receive
speedy reviews of their detention and may have been wrongly
deprived of their freedom.

Lawyers for the seven test case patients said
the ruling “potentially affects thousands of people throughout
England and Wales”. The patients, who cannot be identified for
legal reasons, complained that they suffered long delays – in one
case 27 weeks – and frequent and repeated cancellations of their
hearings. The seven will be applying for compensation within the
next few months.

Mr Justice Stanley Burnton said they had a
right to speedy hearings in case they were wrongly detained. That
right was protected by article 5(4) of the European Convention on
Human Rights and had been infringed because of the delays and
repeated adjournments the patients had suffered because of
government failures.

“On the evidence before me, the principal
causes for cancellations and delays was the shortage of tribunal
members, particularly medical members, and shortage and lack of
training of staff,” he said. “The state has not established that it
has taken appropriate action to ensure that tribunals are
adequately staffed.”

The health secretary must now provide “such
resources as will provide speedy hearings”.

Four of the applicants in the test case made
applications for hearings to the mental health review tribunal for
South London and the South and West regions, while the other three
applied to the tribunal for North London and East regions.

The National Schizophrenia Fellowship welcomed
the ruling but called on the government to rethink the level of
resources it commits to mental health tribunals. Chief executive
Cliff Prior added that the decision would have implications for
government plans to replace the present 1983 act.

“Draft government plans rely even more heavily
on the tribunal system. That is welcome because it reinforces
people’s rights to appeal against detention. However, what is now
clear is that the existing system cannot cope because it is
understaffed and under-resourced.”

Meanwhile, Simon Lawton-Smith, head of public
affairs at mental health charity Maca, warned that successful
compensation claims must not be paid from funds allocated to mental
health services or the ruling could “perversely” do damage instead
of good.

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