A fair-minded decision

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The Independent Online

An important test of a civilised society is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. Hence this newspaper's campaign to defend the rights of the mentally ill. Two years ago, the Government published a draft Mental Health Bill that would have given doctors unprecedented powers to lock up people with untreatable personality disorders even if they had committed no crime.

An important test of a civilised society is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. Hence this newspaper's campaign to defend the rights of the mentally ill. Two years ago, the Government published a draft Mental Health Bill that would have given doctors unprecedented powers to lock up people with untreatable personality disorders even if they had committed no crime.

When Parliament returns next month, ministers will publish a revised Bill that shows welcome signs that they are listening. It appears that the new draft will contain the safeguard that detention in such cases would have to be "clinically appropriate". Whether that will be enough to protect the basic rights of the mentally ill will depend on the small print, but it is certainly a move in the right direction.

The Independent on Sunday accepts there is a balance to be struck between the rights of patients and the protection of the public. Jacqui Smith, who was then the Health minister responsible, said the powers of compulsion in the original draft Bill would apply only to "a very few dangerous people".

It is impossible to conceive of circumstances in which the authorities could be sure that someone who is mentally ill was "dangerous", unless they had already committed offences. Yet the Bill proposed to breach fundamental principles of justice as if it were possible.

In its sincere desire to reassure the public, the Government initially went too far, and succeeded only in reinforcing the popular stereotype of the mentally ill as violent and frightening. The public must be protected but it cannot be right to give either doctors or the courts the general power to lock up people on a hunch that they might commit crimes in the future.

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