‘It is a very isolating, unpleasant, and intimidating experience to be an involuntary patient.’ – Patient X

Patient X – a woman who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder – was detained for involuntary treatment at a hospital psychiatric unit.

With our assistance she appealed against her detention to the then Mental Health Review Board. The Board, which has legal and medical expertise, independently reviews decisions to detain people for involuntary treatment.

The Board decided she should be discharged. Hours later, before she could leave the hospital, a psychiatrist re-admitted her to hospital against her will.

In the first legal action of its kind in Australia, we asked the Supreme Court to consider Patient X’s situation and clarify the decision-making authority of the Board and its successor, the Mental Health Tribunal.

The Supreme Court upheld the vital role played by the tribunal in safeguarding involuntary patients’ rights and ruled that doctors cannot order people to be detained for involuntary treatment again simply because they disagree with its decisions.

This judgment means doctors must consider the tribunal’s decisions and the reasons for it, and there must be a change in circumstances before a new order can be made.

After clarifying the impact of tribunal decisions, the Supreme Court ruled that the mental health service had not acted unlawfully in recommencing involuntary treatment and detention for Patient X as it found that in her particular situation, there had been a change of circumstances.

For the thousands of people receiving compulsory treatment in the mental health system this ruling clarified and strengthened their rights. It provided reassurance that there is effective oversight of detention and involuntary treatment for mental illness, and confirmed the crucial role of the Mental Health Tribunal in protecting their rights.