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Tuesday, 23 April, 2002, 14:54 GMT 15:54 UK
Mentally-ill win human rights ruling
High court ruling
The ruling could open the floodgate for claims
Thousands of psychiatric patients could claim damages after a court ruled the government breached the rights of those held against their will in hospitals.

In seven test cases, patients "sectioned" under the Mental Health Act did not receive speedy enough reviews of their detention by independent tribunals.

Mr Justice Stanley Burnton, sitting at the High Court in London, ruled the patients had the right to speedy hearings in case they were being wrongly detained.

Lawyers for the seven said that the ruling "potentially affects thousands of people throughout England and Wales".

The seven, who cannot be named for legal reasons, will be applying for compensation within the next few months.

Staff shortages

The patients had complained that they had suffered long delays of up to 27 weeks and repeated cancellations of their hearings.

The judge said the patients' rights had been breached under Human Rights legislation.

Mental Health Act compulsory admissions 2000-01
26,707 detained
13,649 under Section 2, up to 28 days
9,714 under Section 3, up to six months
Others detained by criminal court, transferred from prison or on emergency doctor's order
They had suffered because of delays caused by government failures, leading to a lack of tribunal staff.

He said: "On the evidence before me, the principal causes of cancellations and delays was the shortage of tribunal members, particularly medical members, and shortage and lack of training of staff."

He said the state must now provide "such resources as will provide speedy hearings".

The launch of the legal challenge coincided with the Lord Chancellor's Department announcing it was taking urgent action to recruit new tribunal members.

20,000 hearings a year

Benjamin Conroy, from London-based solicitors Kaim Todner, which was involved in two of the lead cases, welcomed the ruling.

He said more than 20,000 cases a year went before the tribunals.

"In some cases, when they do come before the tribunal, they are discharged when they should have got out weeks beforehand."

Postponements and adjournments were wasting the time of social workers, doctors and consultants, he said.

Andrew Guile, from Galbraith Branley solicitors, represents another of the patients.

He told the BBC that in some cases hearings had been postponed up to five times because there simply were not enough tribunal doctors available.

Campaigners' response

Mental health charity Mind also said it was "delighted" with the outcome of the case.

Principal solicitor Simon Foster said: "For patients detained under the Mental Health Act it matters greatly to know that their case will be reviewed within a reasonable time.

"It's highly distressing to have the tribunal hearing postponed or cancelled often at very short notice."

The National Schizophrenia Fellowship said the ruling should prompt the government to rethink the level of resources it commits to mental health tribunals.

NSF chief executive Cliff Prior said: "The courts have recognised a widespread problem and have been told to act without delay."

Mr Prior said that the court decision would have implications for existing government plans to replace the present 1983 Mental Health 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."

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "We are considering the legal implications of this but we have already instigated a review into the Mental Health Review Tribunal proceedings."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Alison Holt
"The government was breaching their human rights by not providing a speedy appeals system"
Solicitor Andrew Guile
"The country as a whole lacks consultant psychiatrists"
See also:

04 Oct 01 | Health
Mental problems 'hit one in four'
11 Jan 02 | Health
Mental illness 'in the genes'
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