‘I was going into it blind’: Nearest Relatives, legal literacy, and the Mental Health Act 1983

Judy Laing, Jeremy Dixon, Kevin Stone

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Abstract

Eligible relatives are given rights and powers in the compulsory treatment of people with mental health problems in several international jurisdictions, including within England and Wales. However, little attention has been given to whether relatives feel legally literate or competent to fulfil such roles. This article examines this issue through focussing on the experiences of Nearest Relatives, who are given rights and powers during Mental Health Act 1983 (MHA) assessments for compulsory admission in England and Wales. Interviews with nineteen Nearest Relatives in England were conducted and were thematically analysed. Three themes were identified. First, NRs spoke about their awareness and knowledge of the role. They predominantly reported negative experiences in which they received no or little information. They also reported that professionals assumed they possessed legal knowledge, and their legal knowledge was largely self-taught. Secondly, NRs reported uncertainty about their own rights and powers, noting the role lacked status or informational or emotional support. Third, NRs highlighted areas for legal reform, stating that the NR role was important, but required specialist support systems for NRs. The findings of this study indicate greater attention needs to be given by law and policy makers to support relatives' understanding of their rights and powers under the MHA, if the NR role is to be effective in helping to safeguard patient rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. These include the right in Article 5 not to be arbitrarily deprived of one's liberty and the right to a private and family life in Article 8. Legislators also need to take account of these factors when considering proposals to reform mental health law in England and Wales.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101981
JournalInternational Journal of Law and Psychiatry
Volume94
Early online date20 Mar 2024
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 20 Mar 2024

Keywords

  • Mental Health Act
  • Nearest Relative
  • Legal literacy
  • Human rights
  • Reform

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