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Tuesday, 25 June, 2002, 17:55 GMT 18:55 UK
Q&A: Mental health laws

BBC Health Correspondent Chris Hogg examines the government's plans for compulsory treatment of people with severe mental illness.

What are the main changes being proposed by the government?

The biggest change is that doctors treating patients in the community who they believe should be forced to undergo treatment will be able to obtain a Mental Health Act Order, removing the need to section them, that is to confine them to hospital in order to make them take their medication.

A new broader definition of mental disorder includes people with severe personality disorders. This will make it easier to force them to undergo treatment or to detain them, whether or not they have committed a crime, if there's a substantial risk that they will be a danger to themselves or to others.

But doctors would have to be able to justify that the planned treatment was clinically sound to a tribunal.

If treatment could not be justified but the person was deemed a danger to others, they should be referred to another appropriate agencies such as the police.

Why are they being proposed?

Ministers believe the current legislation doesn't go far enough to protect the public, or to provide safeguards for individual patients.

Existing legislation is out of date they argue, when the vast majority of people with mental illness are treated in the community rather than in hospital.

How do ministers believe these changes will improve on the current system?

Ministers say the proposals for new mental health tribunals and a new healthcare audit and inspectorate body will ensure that there are better safeguards in place than at present to ensure patients' rights are protected.

The argue the new powers will provide better protection to the public from those who are deemed a risk to others, by ensuring they receive the treatment they need.

It will also stop the so called 'revolving door' problem where patients in the community go in and out of psychiatric units because that's the only way to compel them to take their medication, according to ministers.

What concerns do mental health groups have about the proposals?

The Mental Health Alliance which represents around 50 of the largest mental health groups in the UK is gravely concerned about the proposals to extend compulsory treatment.

It says many people will be too frightened to seek help from mental health professionals because of the risk they'll be forced to take medication which would mean more people wandering the streets without help.

It also risks placing many hundreds of people under compulsory powers which could overwhelm mental health services, according to the Alliance.

It says new mental health legislation should have enshrined a right to treatment rather than broadening the sweep of compulsory treatment.

It pledged to use the Pre-Legislative Scrutiny process to present its own proposals for examination by the committee of MPs and Peers.

What happens now before they become law?

A committee of MPs will review the new draft.

See also:

19 Jun 02 | Health
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