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Wednesday, September 23, 1998 Published at 09:17 GMT 10:17 UK


Expert team to tackle mental health legislation

The expert team will consider compulsory treatment orders for the mentally ill

A law professor will lead the government's drive to revamp mental health legislation.

Professor Genevra Richardson, a professor of public law at the University of London, will head a team of 10 people who will overhaul the 1983 Mental Health Act.

Junior health minister Paul Boateng said: "New legislation is needed to support our new policies, for example, to provide extra powers to treat patients in a range of clinical settings, including, where necessary, the community."

The overhaul is part of the government's response to growing concerns over community care patients who fall through the care net.

There have been a handful of high profile cases in recent years where mentally ill people have been released into the community without proper support and have gone on to harm members of the public.

The most famous case in the last five years is that of paranoid schizophrenic Christopher Clunis who killed Jonathan Zito on a train platform in London.

Compulsory treatment

One of the proposals which the expert team will discuss is community treatment orders.

Under these, community care patients would be forced to take medication.

There are fears that many of the attacks on the public by community care patients are due to patients failing to take medicine prescribed to treat their conditions.

A recent report by the Zito Trust, a charity set up following Jonathan Zito's death, says six in 10 of such attacks are caused by failure to take medication.

Last resort

However, many mental health organisations are against compulsory medication, saying it is an infringement of patients' human rights.

[ image: Paul Boateng: new legislation should support new policies]
Paul Boateng: new legislation should support new policies
One, SANE, says community treatment orders should be a last resort for mentally ill people being treated in the community.

It believes funding for community mental health teams and other outreach services should be sufficient to offer a safety net for the mentally ill.

These, it says, could pick up on any possible problems a patient had with taking their medication.

In July, Health Secretary Frank Dobson announced plans for a "third way" for mental health, including 24-hour crisis teams, more acute beds for the mentally ill and the possible introduction of community treatment orders.

It is thought that those who fail to take their medication could be threatened with the penalty of detention.

Clinical setting

SANE says any compulsory treatment should be offered in a clinical setting, such as a hospital, in case complications should arise.

Mental health drugs tend to be extremely strong and can often interact with other medication.

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of SANE, said: "In common with everyone, SANE dislikes the idea of compulsory treatment and would prefer that necessary efforts were placed in early interventions in care and treatment.

"However, in cases where there is serious risk posed to the individual sufferers or others, SANE would prefer any involuntary treatment take place in a hospital ward or other clinical setting involving close monitoring of the sufferer's physical and mental condition."

SANE also wants mental health legislation to take into account the rights of the carers and families of the mentally ill as well as offering "positive rights to care and treatment" for patients.

The government's expert team is due to report back in the summer.

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