Lawyers slam lack of consultation on proposed changes to 1983 Act

An influential lawyers’ group has accused the health secretary of breaching a code of conduct over her department’s failure to consult properly on proposed amendments to mental health legislation.

The president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, has written to Patricia Hewitt expressing “disappointment” that the government has decided against conducting a full public consultation on its plans to amend the Mental Health Act 1983, which were published in March (Draft bill dumped but campaigners fear compulsion will still increase , 30 March).

The Cabinet Office code of conduct on consultations encourages a 12-week consultation period for new policy proposals. Although it does not have legal force, the code says it should “otherwise generally be regarded as binding” unless “exceptional circumstances require a departure from it”.

The code says a consultation may not be required where an issue is very specialised or where there is a limited number of stakeholders. But in his letter, Law Society president Kevin Martin said neither applied to the plans to amend the act.

The Department of Health has decided there is no need for more consultation on the proposals because it has consulted repeatedly on similar plans over a period of seven years.

But Martin said the government had raised new issues by inserting proposals from previous draft mental health bills into the 1983 act.

He pointed out that proposals for supervised community treatment and changes allowing patients to appoint a different “nearest relative” were completely new and had never been subject to consultation.

The society’s policy adviser, Tim Spencer-Lane, said changes such as the new definition of mental disorder would have significant effects on the working of the existing act and had not been properly explored.

And with the opening up of the new clinical supervisor role, courts may have to accept reports from professions such as occupational therapists, rather than just clinical psychiatrists as at present.

He said: “They can’t just come out with these proposals and wait for it to come out in the wash.”

A DH spokesperson said she would not comment on private correspondence.

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