Reforming the Mental Health Act? A Criminal Justice Perspective

A discussion of the White Paper Reforming the Mental Health Act and what the proposed reforms mean for the criminal justice system.

Megan Georgiou is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Surrey. Her doctoral research explores mental illness in prisons and the ways in which health and justice services are shaped and organised to meet the needs of people in prison with a mental illness. Robert Meadows is a professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey. His research is currently focused on artificial intelligence and mental health and public health responses to sleep.

Published in December 2018, the Independent Review of the Mental Health Act 1983 set out recommendations for government on how the Act required change in both law and practice. The recommendations centred around the notions of modernising mental health services and empowering individuals to have more say in their own care and treatment. It recognised that the way we understand and treat mental health has developed significantly in recent decades, as have public attitudes, however the law has largely remained grounded in a system established in 1959.

The White Paper Reforming the Mental Health Act, published in January 2021, has proposed a range of changes to address the review’s recommendations:

The reforms centre around:

  • Giving patients more control over their care and treatment and promoting dignity and independence.
  • Ensuring the needs of people with learning disabilities and autistic people are better met.
  • Addressing the disproportionate number of people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds detained under the Act.
  • Ensuring people with a serious mental illness who come into contact with the criminal justice system benefit from the proposed reforms.

It is this last group that we are interested in here, and specifically those in prison. The prevalence of mental health issues in prisons is significant, with an estimated 90 per cent of people aged over 16 years experiencing a mental illness, addiction or personality disorder. Incidents of self-harm and suicide reached record highs in recent years, with the most recent figures reporting 70 self-inflicted deaths in the year to September 2020 and 61,153 self-harm incidents in the 12 months to June 2020. The suicide rate in prisons is around ten times higher than in the general population. The rising number of prison suicides is attributed to cuts in staffing and budgets, too much time in cells, a punitive regime and overcrowding, as well as increased levels of violence and deterioration in safety, and restricted access to rehabilitative activities. Reform is therefore needed. However, is this the reform proposed by the White Paper?

With respect to those in contact with the criminal justice system, the White Paper puts forward the following changes:

  • Continuing efforts to support rapid diversion to mental health care and treatment from court or custody as appropriate.
  • Revising the statutory time limit on transferring people in prison who require treatment in a mental health hospital to ensure they are moved within an appropriate timeframe (28 days).
  • Introducing an independent role to manage transfer processes.
  • Extending the statutory right to an Independent Mental Health Advocate (IMHA) to patients awaiting transfer from a prison or an immigration detention centre.
  • Working to eliminate prisons as a place of safety so that people can be transferred directly from court to a healthcare facility, where they can receive a mental health assessment and treatment under the relevant section of the Act.

These do appear to be useful, necessary and welcome changes. However, it is not clear how they will be achieved. At the very least, if these objectives are to be met the consultation needs to reconsider some of the questions it is asking.

Of most import, it needs to ask, ‘how can improvements be made to the infrastructure to ensure the statutory time limit is managed effectively and patients’ needs are met?’ For instance, in relation to people who require transfer from prison to a mental health inpatient service, existing DHSC Good Practice guidance states that the transfer should take place within 14 days after the first assessment has taken place. Figures from 2016-17 indicate that only 34 per cent of people were transferred in time and 7 per cent of people waited for more than 140 days. The change to 28 days, extending rather than the claimed ‘speeding up’ of the process, does not address the root causes of the initial failures to meet the targets and what needs to be put in place to rectify them. As recognised in a 2008 report, bed occupancy levels and barriers/facilitators to timely progression throughout the secure mental health system must be addressed for the system to function as intended. It also emphasises the need for effective multi-agency working and transfer coordinators to ensure the smooth running of the process.

Further to this, many of the more complex proposals lack detail and clarity as to when they might come into play. Throughout the document there are remarks of “…we will not commence this provision until X is properly embedded” or “…we are not planning to legislate immediately due to X”. It also states that the reforms are subject to affordability and will be subject to future funding decisions, including the Spending Review 2021. Given these uncertainties, perhaps a useful question for the White Paper to ask is ‘how can we convince that we are committed to making meaningful change to mental health legislation, especially within the criminal justice system?”

Ultimately, the proposed reforms are welcome, but it remains unclear whether they can go far enough in addressing the various and multifaceted issues that exist within the criminal justice system in relation to mental health. Significant reform is required to provide people in prison with a package of care that is suitable to their needs and follows them throughout their pathway. Until then, equivalence of outcomes for people receiving healthcare in prison with those in the community will not be achieved.

Megan Georgiou, University of Surrey
Email: m.georgiou@surrey.ac.uk
Twitter: @meggeorgiou

Robert Meadows, University of Surrey
Email: R.Meadows@surrey.ac.uk
Twitter: @RobertMeadows16

Images: Courtesy of authors