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I’ve written before about police powers in relation to people with mental health problems. An inquest last month into the death of someone with mental health problems showed the limits on those powers.
Let me illustrate this with a typical scenario. Health and social care workers are concerned about the welfare of someone in their care. The person hasn’t been seen for some time, and there are suggestions that their mental health may be deteriorating, and it may be that attempts by the care staff to contact them has failed. So the police may be asked to go and investigate because there are real fears for the person. If they arrive at the person’s house and they won’t let them in they have no powers of entry. They would need to contact an approved mental health professional to get a warrant to gain entry. Now, of course, if the police are invited in there is no need for a warrant, but the next issue for the police is what are their powers once in the person’s home and the person does not want any help or treatment. Bluntly, they have no powers (unless there is suspicion of an offence), and their only recourse is to get advice from a doctor or mental health professional.
Life and limb
Police have powers under Section 17 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) to enter a premises without a warrant if the action is required to save life or limb, but what the law says is what it means – imminent danger of serious physical harm, not just a general concern about how the person is.
Absent from hospital
Now to go back to the recent inquest into the tragic death of Colin Holt. He had absconded from hospital whilst detained under a section of the Mental Health Act. The police attended at his home where they entered and restrained him. The issue highlighted here is they had the power to remove him back to hospital, but did not have the power to gain entry into his flat using force in the first place; for that they would need to get a warrant from a magistrate. Now there is nothing to say that if they had got a warrant and gained entry things would have turned out differently, but it’s a key reminder to knowing the limited powers of entry the police have. There’s another possible scenario that section 17 of PACE allows for, and that is where the police are pursuing someone who is ‘unlawfully at large’. So, in the situation where someone had absconded from hospital the police would literally have to be following someone into the property. There’s a new Code of Practice which shows in what circumstances police can gain entry into someone’s house and you can view it here.
The QCS Missing Client Policy and Procedure AR04 gives more guidance as to what to do if a service user goes missing.
David Beckingham – QCS Expert Mental Health Contributor