Introduction

The Policing and Crime Act 2017 received royal assent on 31 January 2017. Amongst other matters, it makes amendments to sections 135 and 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983. The commencement date for the amendments is yet to be confirmed.

The key changes are designed to ensure that police officers are able to act more quickly and flexibly whilst ensuring that people receive the assessment and treatment they need as soon as it is required. The changes relate to:

  • places of safety
  • time limits
  • protective searches
  • the duty to consult
  • decreased detention times

Definition of ‘public place’

The current wording of section 136 in relation to where police can exercise their powers is open to interpretation and often causes difficulties. Case law over the years has assisted to better define what is ‘a place to which the public have access’, however this remains a tricky area. The changes when they come into force will define this more clearly, by specifically identifying the following places where police cannot exercise their powers under section 136:

‘a) any house, flat or room where that person, or any other person, is living, or;

b) any yard, garden, garage or outhouse that is used in connection with the house, flat or room, other than one that is also used in connection with one or more other houses, flats or rooms.

Save for in these excluded areas, the police will be able to exercise their powers under section 136 anywhere. This should allow officers to act quickly to protect people found in places such as railway lines, offices and rooftops which have previously not necessarily been considered as ‘places to which the public have access’.

There will, however, be an added duty on the police to consult, where it is practicable to do so, with a registered medical practitioner, a registered nurse or an approved mental health professional, before deciding to remove a person to or to keep them at a place of safety.

Places of safety

The amendments make clear that it will be possible to use a suitable private property as a place of safety, with the consent of the occupier. Therefore, a person’s own home could potentially be a place of safety, as could places such as community centres or other multiple use buildings.

A new provision (section 136A) will prevent the use of police stations as a place of safety for under 18s and also increase the safeguards in place where a police station is used as a place of safety for an adult. Section 136A permits the secretary of state to make regulations regarding the use of police stations as places of safety. It is expected that such regulations will include provision for regular review and ensuring that appropriate medical treatment is available.

Time limits

The maximum period for detention under section 135 and section 136 to allow for a mental health assessment to be completed is currently 72 hours. This will be reduced to an initial maximum period of 24 hours. The period will still commence from the time when the person arrives at the place of safety or the time a police officer enters the property if he/she subsequently decides to keep the person at that place.

It will be possible, at the end of the 24 hour period, for an extension of up to 12 hours to be granted, but only where it would not have been practicable to assess the person in the first 24 hours i.e. only where the condition of the person makes it necessary to do so. That extension can be granted by the registered medical practitioner responsible for the examination of the patient.

Protective searches

Section 136C will introduce the power for protective searches to be undertaken where a police officer has reasonable grounds to believe that the person may be a danger to themselves or others or is concealing an item on his or her person that could be used to cause physical injury to themselves or to others.

Summary

It remains to be seen when these amendments will come into force and whilst there are benefits in terms of the potential to allow the police to respond more quickly and flexibly to persons identified to be at risk, it is unclear how without any resolution to the current bed situation, shorter times scales within which admission to hospital would need to take place could be managed on the ground. It is clear that effective implementation, particularly in relation to the duty to consult and reduced detention times, will involve local authorities, healthcare providers and the police working very closely together. They would therefore be well advised to turn their minds to this sooner rather than later.