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Concern over cells as “place of safety”

Concern over cells as “place of safety”


Concerns have been raised over the use of police cells as a 'place of safety' for patients in crisis.

A code of practice guiding doctors on how to interpret the Mental Health Act outlines five new principles, including using the ‘least restricitve’ options for treatment.

The code, drawn up by the Department of Health, also contains updated guidance on doctors’ holding powers over inpatients in hospital, urging decision-makers always to consider less restrictive alternatives to detention.

BMA medical ethics committee chair John Chisholm (pictured right) said: "The continued use of police cells as a place of safety for mentally disordered individuals, as outlined in the new code, must give rise to some concerns.

"While there will be circumstances in which some individuals will present a serious risk of harm to others that may require the temporary involvement of police and possibly police cells, this must be in exceptional circumstances."

"Given resource pressures, and the shortage of places in psychiatric institutions, there must be a danger that police cells become used inappropriately as holding facilities for mentally disordered individuals, even where they do not present a risk of harm to others."

BMA deputy head of ethics Julian Sheather said:

"This serves to re-emphasise that in the absence of any offending behaviour, risk to others, or the need for some forensic input, the use of police cells for those with serious mental disorders cannot be in their best interests," he said.

Under sections 135 and 136 of the MHA, police have powers to remove people presenting in public who need immediate psychiatric support to a place of safety.

Ideally, these designated safe places are specialist mental health assessment suites in a psychiatric or acute hospital.

But in exceptional circumstances — for example, if a person ‘poses an unmanageably high risk’ to others — police stations may be used.


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