- in Technology
Mental health patients feel they are not being given a fair chance to challenge being held in hospital because of lockdown decisions, a charity has claimed.
Detained individuals have the right to a review by a judge-led tribunal.
But panels in Wales are not being held face-to-face due to Covid-19 and Mind Cymru said it has forced some patients to withdraw from the process.
The Welsh Government said arrangements would be kept under review.
“Taking away a person’s liberty is a serious matter and it appears that patients do not feel like they will have a fair shot at discharge and are withdrawing their application,” said the head of Mind’s legal team, Rheian Davies.
A patient can be held in hospital under mental health laws if their safety or someone else’s safety is at risk, or they need to be assessed or treated for a problem.
The concerns have been building further since changes to mental health rules were introduced by emergency coronavirus legislation in March.
It now means only one doctor rather than two needs to sign-off the decision to detain a patient in hospital.
Mind’s legal expert said they had also been made aware of “a number of detained patients” experiencing difficulties communicating with their lawyers in remote hearings.
“We are going to live with social distancing for a long while yet,” added Ms Davies.
“We call on hospitals, the tribunal and lawyers to work together to ensure that patients have the proper access to the courts and a fair trial that they are legally required to have under article 6 of the European convention on human rights, which the UK is fully signed up to.”
The charity said it was unable to put a figure on the number of individuals affected, but the issue has also been flagged-up by the Law Society, which represents solicitors in Wales and England.
It gave evidence to an urgent consultation on the pandemic called by the Civil Justice Council, the UK government’s body advising the Lord Chancellor and judiciary on civil legal matters.
It warned that mental health tribunals “are generally not suitable to remote hearings, as it is very difficult to ascertain the physical and mental state of a person remotely”.
“This is exacerbated if certain professionals are also not able to examine the person due to social distancing,” added the Law Society.
The professional body said the hearings in Wales were further complicated, as a decision had been taken to hold all tribunal reviews on the telephone only, rather than video conferencing.
The Law Society said the move appeared to have been implemented to ensure fair access to all patients, as some mental health units did not have access to adequate technology or broadband connections.
The report warned changes across the board to accessing the justice system could not be “a permanent way of accessing and upholding justice in the future unless careful monitoring, due process and robust evaluation is carried out”.
“It is crucial that courts are able to re-open once it is safe to do so,” said the society.
The role of the Mental Health Review Tribunal in Wales is one of the limited areas of justice where responsibility has been devolved to Wales.
A spokesman said the Welsh Government recognised the important legal safeguard provided by the Mental Health Review Tribunal for Wales, adding: “Covid-19 has posed unprecedented challenges to ensuring people have continued access to justice.
“Adjustments such as telephone hearings have been necessary to enable the tribunal to continue to function safely for all parties and to comply with social distancing.
“We will keep these arrangements under review.”