Education And Debate

Potential impact of the Human Rights Act on psychiatric practice: the best of British values?

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.322.7290.848 (Published 07 April 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:848
  1. Rosanne Macgregor-Morris (rmacgregormorris@hotmail.com), specialist registrar in forensic and adult psychiatry,
  2. Jane Ewbank, specialist registrar in forensic psychiatry,
  3. Luke Birmingham, senior lecturer in forensic psychiatry
  1. Ravenswood House Medium Secure Unit, Knowle, Fareham PO17 5NA
  1. Correspondence to: R Macgregor-Morris
  • Accepted 17 November 2000

The Human Rights Act came into operation in October 2000, incorporating into English law the European Convention of Human Rights, which was originally formed to ensure no repetition of the atrocities of the second world war. The government intends to guarantee basic human rights in a broad range of circumstances, and this is relevant to the management of psychiatric patients.

The proposition of the act is that it will be unlawful for public authorities (including hospitals, social services, and prisons) to act in a manner incompatible with the convention. Lawyers have speculated at length as to possible challenges to the Mental Health Act, but clinicians seem less aware of the possible impact of this new legislation. The government has tried to reassure us. In March 2000 Jack Straw, the home secretary, told organisations “not to panic,” saying the act is “an opportunity and not a threat” that safeguards “the best British values of fairness, respect for human dignity, and inclusiveness.”1

Others express different views. Lord McCluskey, a senior judge in Scotland, where the convention was adopted after devolution, is reported as saying that the change has provided “a field day for crackpots, a pain in the neck for judges, and a goldmine for lawyers.” In this article we use examples from Europe to review the potential impact on practice in England.

Summary points

The Human Rights Act 1998 came into effect in October 2000 and incorporated articles of the European Convention of Human Rights into English law

Potentially, this could allow psychiatric patients to challenge many aspects of their care

However, European cases suggest that current clinical practice is largely compatible with the act

Future legislation, policy, and procedure will be shaped by patients challenging existing practice using articles of the act, and a balance will have to be struck between …

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