A plan to abolish preliminary medical examinations of patients sectioned under the Mental Health Act before their case is heard by a mental health tribunal (MHT) will prove a ‘magnet for litigation and appeals’ and lead to delays and extra costs, solicitors have warned.

The plan will undermine the civil liberties of vulnerable patients, restricting their right to liberty and forcing them to undergo an ‘intimidating’ examination before strangers, the solicitors added.

Current tribunal procedure allows the medical member of the panel to examine sectioned patients immediately before the tribunal sits to decide their fitness to be allowed back into the community. This has the advantage of allowing medical members to meet patients in a private and unthreatening context and to spend more time with them than their usual ward doctor can spare.

Richard Charlton (pictured), chair of the Mental Health Lawyers Association (MHLA), told the Gazette that this long-established procedure, found fair by the High Court in 2007, had the effect of ‘cracking the ice’ between patients and the medical member, and allowed patients to recognise at least one member of the panel that was to decide on their liberty.  

He said: ‘Scrapping the procedure would require the medical member to question the patient during tribunal proceedings, a stressful and intimidating experience for anyone.’ He dismissed the plan as ‘a crude attempt to save money’.

Law Society mental health and disability committee chair Sophy Miles said that without an assessment from the medical member, the tribunal would need medical reports from independent experts and read ‘voluminous’ records, which are often handwritten. She said: ‘This will all prove incredibly complicated, slow and expensive. It will also be a magnet for litigation and appeals.’