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Health and social care rights

Explains your rights to social care, and how this differs from healthcare. Includes information on eligibility, needs assessments, financial assessments, and how local authorities may meet your needs.


If you have a mental health problem, sometimes you might need health or social care support. It's important to know that you have rights about the health and social care support you receive.

What's the difference between 'healthcare' and 'social care'?

There's no legal definition of healthcare or social care. However, some NHS guidance says:

  • A healthcare need is related to the treatment, control or prevention of a disease, illness, injury or disability, and the care or aftercare of a person with these needs.
  • A social care need is focused on providing assistance with:
    • the activities of daily living
    • maintaining independence
    • social interaction
    • enabling the individual to play a fuller part in society
    • protecting them in vulnerable situations
    • helping them to manage complex relationships
    • and (in some circumstances) accessing a care home or other supported accommodation.

It can sometimes be difficult to say whether a service you receive is health or a social care. But it matters because healthcare is generally provided free under the NHS, whereas social care is provided by local authorities, who can charge for it.​

Healthcare overview

  • Healthcare means the services provided to you to maintain and improve your health. Most types of healthcare provided by the NHS are free at the point of delivery to UK residents.
  • You have certain rights regarding the healthcare treatment you receive. This includes not being discriminated against, getting information about your treatment and being able to see your medical records. You also generally have the right to give consent before receiving treatment, and to refuse treatment (except in certain situations).
  • You have rights to make choices about the healthcare you receive. This includes choosing your GP practice, doctor or nurse, accessing healthcare if you are homeless, and changing hospital.
  • Some people may be eligible for a package of care called continuing healthcare (CHC). This is for people who are not in hospital and have been assessed as having a 'primary health need' (this means that your main need must relate to your health). Continuing healthcare can be provided in your own home or in a care home.

Social care overview

  • Social care services can help you if you need practical help and support because of your illness, disability or age. Social care services are provided by your local authority, though you may have to pay for it.
  • The first stage in getting any social care is for the local authority to assess your needs, called a 'needs assessment'. This is so the local authority can gain a full picture of your care and support needs, so that they can make informed decisions about whether you're eligible for support.
  • You will only get social care support if your needs meet the eligibility criteria. When deciding this, your local authority will look at what kind of health problem causes your needs for care and support, whether your needs affect your ability to do things, and how they affect your day-to-day living.
  • If the local authority has decided that you have eligible needs, then it will plan your care and support with you. You should be involved in the planning process, and the plan should meet your needs and achieve the outcomes that you want.
  • The local authority can meet your needs for care and support in different ways – for example, providing you with accommodation, care and support at home, counselling or advocacy. If you want to sort out your own care and support, you can ask your local authority to make direct payments to cover the cost.
  • If the local authority provides you with support, it must assess your financial circumstances and decide whether you need to pay for some of the cost. The assessment will look at your income and your capital, and whether you're in a care home or not.
  • Safeguarding means protecting your right to live in safety, free from abuse and neglect. Local authorities have a legal duty towards people who are experiencing or are at risk of abuse and neglect. If the local authority thinks you're at risk, and you're in its area, then it must make enquiries to decide what action should be taken.
  • An advocate can help you understand your rights, express your views and wishes, and help make sure your voice is heard. If you have difficulty being involved in decisions about your care and support, then your local authority must provide you with an advocate, unless there is someone else suitable to support you.
  • If you're a carer, you may also have carer's rights to social care support. The law is similar to that relating to other adults' social care rights, in that you'll have an assessment, the local authority will decide whether your needs meet the eligibility criteria, and a support plan of your eligible needs will be prepared.
  • If you're unhappy with a health or social care service you've received, you can complain. See our legal pages on complaining about health and social care for information about how to do this.

This information was published in February 2018. 

This page is currently under review. All content was accurate when published. 

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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