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Reform of Ireland's mental health laws delayed as heads of bill not expected until the end of the year

It’s been four years since an expert group tasked with reviewing the Mental Health Act 2001 recommended 165 changes to the law.

TheJournal.ie has reported extensively on how the shortfalls in legislation is having a real impact on the care of patients in Ireland's mental health care system.
TheJournal.ie has reported extensively on how the shortfalls in legislation is having a real impact on the care of patients in Ireland's mental health care system.
Image: Shutterstock/HelloRF Zcool

THE HEADS OF the new Bill to update Ireland’s mental health laws are not expected until the end of the year.

It’s been four years since an expert group tasked with reviewing the Mental Health Act 2001 recommended 165 changes to the law.

Mental health campaigners, such as Mental Health Reform – a coalition of organisations campaigning for better mental health rights – have been calling time and urging the government to deliver on a promise (made by former Mental Health Minister Kathleen Lynch) to publish a general scheme of a new Mental Health Act.

TheJournal.ie has reported extensively on how the shortfalls in legislation are having a real impact on the care of patients in Ireland’s mental health care system – in particular, about how ‘voluntary’ patients in mental health institutions continue to be detained in hospital without review.

Speaking on the matter in the Dail, Communications Minister Richard Bruton said:

“I understand that the heads are not expected until the end of the year on that Act.”

Junior Minister for Mental Health Jim Daly confirmed that the draft of heads of Bill, based on recommendations of the expert group review went to the Mental Health Commission.

“I confirm that the Mental Health Act 2001 went to the Mental Health Commission. That is a very welcome step which is long overdue. The Act finally made that journey, which is a step in the right direction,” he said.

The draft represents “a detailed and comprehensive piece of work, which aims to improve and modernise certain aspects of the Act in line with international standards”, according to the Junior Minister of Health Catherine Byrne.

Six months

Though the draft Bill has been sent for review, Byrne said it could be months before it is returned to government with recommendations.

“It is important to stress that this is a phase in a process, with the commission likely to require a period of approximately six months to study and comment on the draft heads,” she said.

Further delay in rolling out the law has been criticised by Fianna Fáil’s James Browne and Sinn Fein’s Pat Buckley.

In a motion on mental health services this week,which was passed in the Dail and not opposed by government, Lawless called for Ireland’s mental health laws to be updated, adding that involuntary patients should have advance healthcare directives respected.

“The government have already disappointed this week by announcing that heads of bill for a new Mental Health Act likely won’t be published until early next year. We need to push for a more open consultation and a collaborative approach to the development of this important legislation,” said Buckley.

It is understood that in the draft heads gone for review are new provisions to allow for regulation by the Mental Health Commission of mental health community residences.

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In addition, the updated Act will include new text on the provision of information for voluntary patients. Furthermore, the draft heads include the recognition of rights of 16 year olds and 17 year olds to have an equal say over their mental health care as with physical health.

Other issues have arisen in recent times with Ireland’s mental health laws. Last year, Health Minister Simon Harris had to draft emergency legislation following a Court of Appeal ruling which said the detention of patients under renewal orders for six and 12 months was unconstitutional.

‘Law does not protect patients’

Mental Health Reform’s Senior Policy and Research Officer, Kate Mitchell recently said that Ireland’s Mental Health Act is significantly out of line with international human rights law and does not adequately protect the rights of people who go into hospital for mental health treatment.

“For over 4 years now, the Government has been drafting legislation to update the Act. The protracted delays in publication of this legislation are completely unacceptable. People who need inpatient treatment for their mental health difficulty cannot wait any longer for their rights to be protected,” she said, adding:

We know from a recent survey published by Mental Health Reform that many people using mental health services do not feel that they are being treated with dignity and respect, and they do not feel that they have enough choice and control over their mental health treatment, such as the medications they are given.
Successive governments have repeatedly failed to meet their own timetable for updating the Mental Health Act. Each day this legislation is delayed, is another day that people are at risk of having their human rights violated.

Mental Health Reform said the legislation “needs to be published now”, stating that “people need to be assured that their rights will be protected when in hospital so that they can confidently seek help when they need it”.

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