A high court challenge to the system for investigating deaths in psychiatric detention in England and Wales begins today.
Deaths in police custody are investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and deaths in prison are investigated by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO).
However, no such independent investigations take place where people die in hospital while detained under the Mental Health Act (MHA). Around 320 people die while detained under the Act every year.
The system is being challenged by Dr Michael Antoniou, whose wife Janey died while detained in hospital under the MHA in 2010.
An investigation was launched by the trust responsible for Mrs Antoniou’s care in detention, which refused Dr Michael Antoniou’s request for an investigation by an independent body.
This request was also refused by the then Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, who has ultimate responsibility for investigating deaths of people detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act.
At the hearing, which takes place today and tomorrow, Dr Antoniou will argue that independent investigation is required by the Human Rights Act and that to exclude deaths of people detained under the MHA from independent investigation is discriminatory. He said:
The Trust’s adversarial conduct raised high levels of suspicion in me that they were trying to hide the truth of what happened to Janey in order to try and avoid public criticism. So I am still left wondering as to exactly what happened the night Janey passed away and if anything could have been done to avoid her death. All of this concern I believe would have been avoided if an independent body had conducted the investigation from the outset.
The charity INQUEST, which supports bereaved families throughout inquests and investigations, has been working with Janey Antoniou’s family since her death in 2010. Deborah Coles, co-director of INQUEST said:
The Secretary of State has provided no good reason why those who die whilst detained in hospitals and their families should receive an inferior investigation to those who die whilst detained anywhere else by the State.
There is overwhelming evidence that the current system for investigating deaths in mental health detention is not fit for purpose. More rigorous, robust and transparent investigations, with the effective participation of the family, can play a critical role in ensuring that systemic failings are addressed in order to safeguard the lives of others.
Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, said:
"Being detained under the Mental Health Act is one of the most serious things that can happen to you in terms of your mental health. If someone dies while at their most vulnerable and in the care of the NHS then this should be investigated as rigorously as if they had died in police custody or in prison. Bereaved families should not be left doubting the processes that follow losing a loved one.
Janey was a tireless campaigner for the rights of people with mental health problems. Having known and worked with her over many years, I hope that wider lessons can be learned from her tragic and untimely death."