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Why our Human Rights Act a mental health professional

In this blog, we hear from Deborah Pearson. Deborah has been a Social Worker in Mental Health teams since 2003 and qualified as an Approved Social Worker (later converted to Approved Mental Health Professional) in 2007. She has worked in Community Mental Health Teams and in a medium-secure forensic hospital, as well as an Assertive Outreach Team.  She now works in a Local Authority Prevention and Personalisation Mental Health team. However, at the time of writing, she is also seconded to the Local Authority Learning and Development team where they deliver and design training for Social Workers, Social Work Students and ASYE Social Workers. She is also a Practice Educator and has her PE2 award.

Please note, this is a guest blog and views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of BIHR.

The Human Rights Act (HRA) means that I am obligated to act in a way that protects the dignity of the people I work with, particularly when I am carrying out Mental Health Act assessments. Of course I treat people with dignity anyway, but the HRA enshrines this in law and gives people a framework of protection, so they can challenge me, if they feel I have behaved otherwise.  There are several articles in the HRA that are important in the work I do, especially when I section people.

Article 2: the right to life - If someone is suicidal I have an obligation along with other public officials to take reasonable steps to protect their life if we know (or should know) that there is a real and immediate risk that they could take their own life. This could mean temporarily preventing them from leaving a ward unsupervised.

Article 5: the right to liberty – Entering a restrictive environment like a hospital ward may risk depriving a person of their liberty. This is a non-absolute right which can sometimes be limited, but only if there is a law which allows this, it is for a legitimate aim (such as to protect the individual or others from harm), and it is proportionate, i.e. the least restrictive option.

Article 6: the right to a fair trial – When a person is detained under the Mental Health Act they have the right to appeal for this to be lifted through a Mental Health review tribunal.

Article 8: the right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence – Detained patients are allowed to see their family members. When I am carrying out a MHA assessment I take into account the dynamics of the patient’s family and what is important to them. We do not give information about the person to members of the public or the press. We do not give information to their family unless the person has given their consent to disclose information. We respect the right of people with mental health difficulties to have a family life, to get married and to enjoy intimate consenting relationships, whilst also recognising that this is a non-absolute right which can sometimes be limited if the decision is lawful, legitimate and proportionate.

The Human Rights Act is very important as it places an obligation on local authorities and trusts to respect the person they are working with; to take into account their rights, their dignity and to afford them the same equality of life that anyone else would expect. A person who has their human rights breached has access to the courts for remedy and justice. The Human Rights Act helps to amplify the voice of the person being assessed, during a process that often severely diminishes their voice. Countless people will be affected by the proposal to scrap the Human Rights Act.  The Bill of Rights does not offer enough protection. The Human Rights Act puts a legal duty on public authorities to respect, protect and fulfil human rights in everything they do, every day. The Bill of Rights is removing Section 3 of the Human Rights Act – which is the local authorities' DUTY to consider the interpretation of law in favour of someone’s human rights.  So from the perspective of a Mental Health Social Worker, we are really moving into dangerous territory here. The Bill of Rights is actually going to weaken the Human Rights of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

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