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Concern over new mental health act

13 November, 2002

Members of Parliament and Peers have warned of the human rights implications of the UK government's draft Mental Health Act, to be introduced in the Queen's Speech this week.

In a report, the Joint Commons and Lords Committee on Human Rights said it had "serious" reservations about some parts of the act, including areas where the act seems to expand the definition of "mental disorder". The committee said:

"It might also include illnesses affecting organs other than the brain, but causing effects which interfere with mental functioning, such as epilepsy, and conceivably diabetes if the patient was suffering a hyperglycaemic attack leading to interference with brain function.

"The prospect of a Mental Health Act being used to authorise compulsory treatment of people suffering from diabetes or epilepsy is unattractive. In our view it would unduly interfere with the right of people suffering from disorders which do not normally affect mental function to control the kinds of treatment which they accept. This is a fundamental aspect of the right to personal autonomy and physical integrity which arises both at common law and under Articles 3 and 8 of the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights), and should not be limited by over-inclusive mental health legislation. We recommend that the definition of 'mental disorder' should be reviewed to see whether this risk can be avoided."

Philip Lee, Chief Executive of the charity Epilepsy Action, said:

“On behalf of all people with epilepsy in the UK, Epilepsy Action welcomes the report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights in response to the draft Mental Health Bill. The fact that the bill’s definition of mental disorder is so vague as to include people with epilepsy is totally unacceptable. Any form of compulsion or detention based on health issues must be prepared with incredible care, or we risk alienating large numbers of people who present no higher risk to the community than anyone else.

“The bill, in its present form, threatens to take public attitudes to conditions like epilepsy, and mental health generally, back to the dark ages when anyone ‘different’ was locked up. Until this bill is changed, we consider the human rights of the 450,000 people with epilepsy to be under threat. Epilepsy Action will be making strong representations to ensure that those changes happen.”