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Police powers – changes in the making
There have been a couple of reports published recently about the operation of two particular police powers under the Mental Health Act 1983 England and Wales. These include a report from the Centre for Mental Health which reports on user and professional experiences of these parts of the law, and a Government report which is a response to a consultation exercise, together with some suggested legal and operational changes.
I wrote an article last April about police powers in relation to people with mental health problems but just to summarise the law as it stands:
- Section 135 gives the police powers of entry if they have a warrant from a magistrate to remove a mentally disordered person to a place of safety, if necessary.
- Section 136 allows the police to remove a mentally disordered person from a public place to a place of safety if necessary
The purpose of both these powers, which sound draconian, would be to get swift assessment and help and care with the person’s mental health problem. Because the powers are potentially draconian there is a lot of controversy and discussion about their use. To summarise the discussion, there is a lot of concern about widespread use of Section 136 and overuse of police cells as a place of safety where hospital would seem more appropriate. The other issue with section 136 is that it only applies to places where the public has access, not a private place like someone’s own home. So, if the police become aware of someone in mental distress living in their own home, their powers are limited. They would then need to consider the use of Section 135 and that would involve contacting mental health services and get an Approved Mental Health Professional to get a warrant from a magistrate before there would be any powers to gain entry to make sure the person got an assessment. Clearly all of this takes a lot of time in a potentially crisis situation and one in which the police may have lots of other pressures on their time.
Those are some of the issues with these parts of mental health law. The two recent reports highlight these issues and offer some legislative changes. Here are some of the options.
- Better definition of a public place. At the moment there are lots of grey areas, for example a railway line – very clearly property to which the public do not have access
- Outlaw the use of police cells for under 18s as a place of safety
- Restrict use of cells
- Extend powers to ambulance staff
If you want to read both these reports they can be found at:
- Review of Sections 135 & 136 of the Mental Health Act
- Review of the Operation of Sections 135 and 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983