On World Mental Health Day, we look at how detained vulnerable people have been affected by legal aid cuts.
The Sun did its bit to sabotage the aims of World Mental Health Day earlier this week by demonising the mentally ill with the front page headline: ‘1,200 killed by mental patients.’
In fact, the research on which this figure of 1,200 is based makes it clear that not all the killers were mental health patients. Some were indeed receiving treatment from mental health services at the time of their crimes, but many others were not, even if subsequently they were found to require treatment.
It’s not just the Sun that’s using mental illness for nefarious ends. Vladimir Putin, never a beacon of open-minded liberalism, was reported this week to have indefinitely banged up a political opponent in a psychiatric institution.
Apparently, Mikhail Kosenko was arrested for taking part in an anti-Putin protest on the eve of the leader’s inauguration as president last year and has just been put away.
It’s a return to the old days of the Soviet era, we all complained upon reading the news, except the uncomfortable truth is that our own government is also keeping people in indefinite detention in psychiatric institutions – according to the Mental Health Lawyers Association (MHLA).
But for the moment let’s go back to World Mental Health Day. The day comes around annually and is when the World Health Organisation, mental health charities and other interested bodies attempt to educate people about mental health issues.
They try to raise awareness of the prevalence of mental illness in society and de-stigmatise it so that sufferers are treated with the same dignity as other ill people.
The first World Mental Health Day was in 1992. However, 21 years on, it would seem that the message has still not got through to the UK government.
Earlier this week the MHLA told the Gazette that there was a growing crisis arising from the Ministry of Justice’s new legal aid regulations that came into force last April.
These have effectively withdrawn legal aid from vulnerable people wanting to challenge their loss of freedom, in the process going against a 2004 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights guaranteeing them the right to an independent judicial review of their detention.
MHLA chair Richard Charlton says that legal aid - in theory, at least - is still available to allow detained people to challenge their detention.
However, the practice of most judges hearing such challenges is temporarily to authorise detention while the court looks into whether the applicant does indeed lack mental capacity and, if so, whether detention is required or whether the applicant could go home or live with family.
The problem is that legal aid disappears as soon as the judge makes the interim order.
This leaves applicants, often with mental health problems, to face the combined might of (usually) local authorities represented by barristers, solicitors and social workers.
Making matters worse, applicants normally do not have the means to pay for the independent experts that the court frequently requires for a proper review of their case.
Charlton says: ‘The whole procedure for safeguarding the detention of some of the most vulnerable in society is already seen by most practitioners as being unfit for purpose. The removal of legal aid in this way further restricts justice for often desperate and disadvantaged applicants and effectively robs them of rights given to them following the European court’s decision.’
Well, that’s telling them! Except is it not also hugely shameful that the government of one of the world’s great democracies should be one third of an unholy trinity with the Sun and Vladimir Putin?
Jonathan Rayner is a reporter on the Gazette