Voluntary patients

Explains your rights if you are having treatment in hospital as a voluntary patient. Applies to England and Wales.

Terms you need to know







An advocate is a person who can both listen to you and speak for you in times of need. Having an advocate can be helpful in situations where you are finding it difficult to make your views known, or to make people listen to them and take them into account. Find out more on our advocacy information page.

Approved mental health professional (AMHP)

AMHPs are mental health professionals who have been approved by a local social services authority to carry out duties under the Mental Health Act. They are responsible for coordinating your assessment and admission to hospital if you are sectioned.

They may be:

  • social workers
  • nurses
  • occupational therapists
  • psychologists


'Capacity' means the ability to understand information and make decisions about your life. Sometimes it can also mean the ability to communicate decisions about your life.

If you do not understand the information and are unable to make a decision about your care, for example, you are said to lack capacity.

Care coordinator













A care coordinator is the main point of contact and support if you need ongoing mental health care.

They keep in close contact with you while you receive mental health care and monitor how that care is delivered – particularly when you’re outside of hospital.

They are also responsible for carrying out an assessment to work out your health and social care needs under the care programme approach (CPA).

A care coordinator could be any mental health professional, for example:

  • nurse
  • social worker
  • other mental health worker

This is decided according to what is most appropriate for your situation.

A care coordinator usually works as part of the community mental health team.

Care Programme Approach (CPA) or Care and Treatment Planning (CTP)








The Care Programme Approach (CPA) is a way that secondary mental health services are assessed, planned, co-ordinated and reviewed for someone that lives in England. Secondary mental health services include the Community Mental Health Team, Assertive Outreach Team and Early Intervention Team.

The Care and Treatment Planning (CTP) is a similar process for people living in Wales. But it comes from a law called the Mental Health (Wales) Measure 2010.

In both England and Wales you should get:

  • a full assessment of your health and social care needs
  • a care plan
  • regular reviews
  • a care coordinator who will be responsible for overseeing your care and support

Deprivation of liberty

A deprivation of liberty is where your liberty is taken away from you – that is, you are not free to leave and under continuous supervision and control. The Mental Capacity Act says that the law allows this only in very specific situations.

This may happen to you if you need to go into a care home or hospital to get care or treatment, but you don't have the capacity to make decisions about this yourself.


A person is detained if they are being kept in hospital under section and are not free to leave.

Equality Act 2010

This is the law that explains:

  • what behaviour counts as unlawful discrimination
  • who has a right to challenge discrimination

Human Rights Act (HRA) 

This is a law that the government has brought in to protect our human rights in the UK.

Independent mental health advocate (IMHA)









An IMHA is an advocate specially trained to help you find out your rights under the Mental Health Act 1983 and help you while you are detained. They can listen to what you want and speak for you.

You have a right to an IMHA if you are:

• detained in hospital under a section of the Mental Health Act, but not if you are under sections 4, 5, 135 and 136

• under Mental Health Act guardianship, conditional discharge and community treatment orders (CTOs)

• discussing having certain treatments, such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

In Wales, voluntary patients can also have an IMHA.

Mental Capacity Act (MCA)

If you can’t make decisions for yourself because you don’t have the mental capacity to make them, the Mental Capacity Act 2005 tells you:

  • what you can do to plan ahead
  • how you can ask someone else to make decisions for you
  • how you can make decisions for someone else

Mental Health Act 1983 (MHA)

This is a law that applies to England and Wales which allows people to be detained in hospital (sectioned) if they have a mental illness and need treatment. You can only be kept in hospital if certain conditions are met.

Mental Health Tribunal (MHT)

This is a special court that deals with cases relating to the Mental Health Act 1983. The Tribunal decides whether you can be discharged from your section and can decide about suitable aftercare and make recommendations about matters such as hospital leave, transfer to another hospital, guardianship and community treatment orders.

The court is made of a panel, which normally includes:

  • a legally qualified chairperson
  • a ‘lay person’ who has appropriate experience and qualifications in the area of mental health
  • an independent psychiatrist, who will speak to you and examine you before the tribunal hearing in certain circumstances, and when you request to see them

Where you see a reference to the Mental Health Tribunal in this guide, it means:

  • First Tier Tribunal (Mental Health), if you live in England, or
  • Mental Health Review Tribunal for Wales, if you live in Wales

Place of safety

A locally agreed place where the police may take you to be assessed, usually a police station or a hospital. A police station should normally only be used in an emergency.

Responsible clinician (RC)





This is the approved clinician in charge of your care and treatment while you are sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

Certain decisions, such as applying for someone who is sectioned to go onto a community treatment order (CTO), can only be taken by the responsible clinician.

All responsible clinicians must be approved clinicians. They do not have to be a doctor, but in practice many of them are.

Secondary mental health services








These are services provided by medical specialists who generally do not have the first contact with you.

This means that you will need to be referred to them by your GP or another specialist. For example, if you go to your GP’s surgery and see your doctor or nurse this is primary care.

If your doctor refers you to the Community Mental Health Team or another service this would be secondary care.

In mental health, these services would include

  • Community Mental Health Team
  • Assertive Outreach Team
  • Early Intervention Team


In this guide, being 'sectioned' means that you are kept in hospital under the Mental Health Act. There are different types of sections, each with different rules to keep you in hospital. The length of time that you can be kept in hospital depends on which section you are detained under.

See our information on sectioning to find out more.

Section 117 aftercare

Health authorities and local social services have a legal duty to provide free aftercare for people who have been detained under Mental Health Act sections 3, 37, 47 or 48, but who have left hospital. The duty to provide aftercare also applies if you are under a community treatment order.  Aftercare services in the aftercare plan should be provided free of charge.

Section 136

Under this section of the Mental Health Act, a police officer can take you to a place of safety if you are in a public area it seems that you are “suffering from mental disorder” and “in need of immediate care or control”. See our information on sectioning to find out more.

Voluntary patient or informal patient


You are a voluntary patient (sometimes called an ‘informal patient’) if you are staying in a psychiatric hospital but are not detained under the Mental Health Act. You should be able to come and go from the hospital within reason and are able to discharge yourself if you decide to go home.

This information was published in November 2016. We will revise it in 2018.

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