Another BLOG to reinforce points that have been made by the police for some years now: we have no legal powers whatsoever in private premises under the Mental Health Act and we cannot force entry to someone’s private premises in order to check on their welfare, unless there are reasonable grounds to suspect that their life is very literally at risk. This is the express statement of the Courts – in SYED v DPP  and D’SOUZA v DPP  – and it is the express position of your elected Government who have specifically reviewed the matter during the introduction of the Care Act 2014 and in forthcoming amendments fo the Mental Health Act 1983.
This stark reminder comes against a very tragic backdrop: an inquest in Staffordshire into the death of an unwell, vulnerable man who took his own life by stabbing himself repeatedly whilst the police twice decided not to respond to requests from other agencies to check on his welfare. A Coroner’s court heard how the man failed to attend an outpatient appointment and failed to respond to mental health services when they attended his home address. He was seen moving within the premises by staff who then left the area and rang the police who twice pointed out they have no more powers to act in that situation than whoever had knocked the front door and been ignored.
You will note in this particular article that the Coroner is not quoted in any way criticising the position that the police took in connection with the requests received – in previous coverage the Coroner was told by an officer from Professional Standards that officers had to make a judgement call and the Coroner wondered “the wrong judgement call had been made.” We can l wonder, but we have to assume a Court would take a view about whether officers did or did not have grounds to force entry.
It is the second Inquest in Staffordshire where police powers to address mental vulnerability in private premises have been relevant – the police have no powers in private premises to take action or to force entry and should not be the lead agency in addressing the needs of vulnerable people unless there are literally life-threatening risks. (I’ll add a link to this paragraph as soon as I can dig it out.)
The police service receives, quite literally, thousands of requests every day to check on the welfare of various people. In London alone, the numbers are in excess of ten thousand requests a month: that’s around 322 requests every single day and only a small minority of them (4-5%) relate to urgent or imminent risks to someone or relate to a situation where a crime has occured or is in progress. Many of them relate to individuals who are also owed a duty of care by a range of other helath and / or social care organisations. There is a very legitimate question of whether the police add anything to a situation: anyone can knock on someone’s from door, telephone them or write them a letter – the police bring powers of coercion to force entry, but they are tightly controlled in light of the law and the above-mentioned legal rulings and they don’t apply to the vast majority of situations to which welfare requests relate. I do accept that people may be differently inclined to answer their door to a uniformed police officer, but not always that they are more inclined – the reverse could be true because of what that person anticipates the police may then do. We should not assume the police are always a welcomed aspect of responding to someone who is unwell and we should treat each person as an individual.
So in this particularly tragic case, we should note that those who attended didn’t keep the house under any form of observation whilst urgently seeking a warrant under the Mental Health Act to allow action to be taken. We can infer it’s therefore questionable how concerned they were that immediate action was needed – they were concerned enough to ring an agency with no powers to do anything else they hadn’t already done; but not concerned enough to remain in place whilst escalating the problem to mental health professionals who could have brought something else to bear. For the record: I’m not questioning the correctness of that decision – not for one moment. I obviously don’t have enough information to know whether or not they had enough justification to do anything else but I point this out because it allows us to infer that concerens cannot have been at the upper end of the scale, because no urgent action was deemed necessary. So why would the police take urgent action? – and what urgent action could they lawfully take?!
Beginning a news article with “paranoid schizophrenic” set me off on the wrong foot for a start – as if this was the most important descriptor of a vulnerable man and his life? Within the first paragraph we then have suggestion that the police “twice failed to respond” and this assumes that a) they had a duty to respond and that b) they had relevant legal powers to respond. Neither of these claims is true on the facts given in the article. No-one told the police that his life was immediately at risk, officers did take the time to check on his background and had no reason to think he was self-harming or would do so; they concluded that they had no legal powers to force entry to the premises and mental health services had already visited and seen him moving within the premises. On the facts as reported to them, the headline could have been “Police refuse to unlawfully invade a vulnerable man’s home” or similar.
Your Government reviewed police powers under the MHA last year and published a document about it. This document reflected considerable feedback from the public and other interested organisations that police powers in these circumstances should not be extended. Forthcoming legislation to amend the MHA will not amend this part of it – and this is a deliberate decision in light of what the public want. It is therefore incumbent upon other organisations who do have legal powers to act in these situations to take advantage of their powers to do so. It seems arguable from the facts presented here that a warrant under s135(1) may well have been possible to obtain – perhaps we should ask why this wasn’t done as soon as the patient refused entry to the premises instead of berating the police for respecting the rights of people not to have their homes unlawfully violated? After all, one feature of the Government review was repeated anecdotal evidence that the police have done exactly this in the past and that it needs to stop.
This case is too awful for words: poor bloke was seen alive by mental health services at one point and subsequently found dead – accepting that not all risk can be totally eliminated, it does re-emphasize the need for professionals to understand legal frameworks, potentially to communicate more clearly with each other and to work more effectively together. The importance of this cannot be under-estimated.
Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award.