The Government has admitted that it will have to take the extraordinary step of bringing in emergency retrospective legislation after more than 5,000 people were wrongly sectioned under the mental health act over the past ten years because of a technical error.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told Parliament that thousands of Britain’s most vulnerable patients have been locked up on the say so of doctors who, despite having the requisite medical knowledge, were not legally allowed to make such a decision.
The error will require immediate retrospective legislation to avoid a deluge of legal complaints whilst a review has been ordered to find out what went wrong.
The Department of Health insists that no patients have been wrongly sectioned in clinical terms and that the doctors behind the decisions had the correct professional qualifications.
Under the Mental Health Act those who are sectioned for their own or society’s safety are done so with the authorisation of a doctor who has to be approved by the Secretary of State. In recent years the Health Secretary has delegated responsibility for approving doctors to the 10 Strategic Health Authorities that cover England.
However four authorities - North East, Yorkshire and Humber, West Midlands and East Midlands – delegated a further step top mental health trusts and then failed to sign off on the decisions they made, meaning they were effectively illegal.
In a statement to the Commons Mr Hunt said: “We believe that all the proper clinical processes were gone through when these patients were detained. They were detained by medically qualified doctors. We believe that no one is in hospital who shouldn’t be and no patients have suffered because of this.
He added: “But for the avoidance of any remaining doubt, and in the interests of the safety of patients themselves, as well as the potential concerns of their families and the staff who care for them, we are introducing emergency legislation to clarify the position.”
Andy Burnham, his opposite in the Labour party, said MPs would work with the Health Secretary in bringing in the emergency legislation but he warned: "There will be concerns about precedent - this the first time that the House has been presented with emergency legislation in this area which affects people's rights. The public will want to know that it is being used in exceptional circumstances as a last resort, not as a convenient means of correcting administrative failures."
Mental health charities reacted cautiously to the announcement saying that although the mistake was regrettable, they were assured by promises from the government that no-one had been sectioned falsely in clinical terms.
“Being involuntarily detained via the Mental Health Act is one of the most serious things that can happen to someone in terms of their mental health,” said Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind. “For this reason it is essential that the system works as it should, with safeguards in place to protect the rights of the person being detained. It is therefore regrettable that this mistake has been made and that it went unnoticed for so long.”
Paul Jenkins, Chief Executive of Rethink Mental Illness added: “All of us need to know that if we were ever ill enough to be sectioned, we would be treated according to the proper processes. At this stage, we have no reason to think that anyone has been detained who should not have been, even though the correct procedures have not been followed. We believe that the Department of Health and Strategic Health Authorities are taking swift action and we will continue to monitor the situation.”
Marjorie Wallace chief executive of the mental health charity SANE, added: “It is a matter of some concern that the procedures for something as sensitive as being sectioned have not been followed in so many cases. At the moment we have the Health Secretary’s assurance that no-one has been detained unnecessarily, and must hope that these errors are correctly swiftly so that confidence in the system can be preserved. This is particularly important when an individual is placed in the care and authority of the state.”
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