awardjaneyA challenge to the lack of independent investigations into deaths of people in psychiatric detention has been launched at the High Court.

The challenge has been brought by Dr Michael Antoniou, whose wife Janey (pictured) – a well-known mental health campaigner and sometime contributor to Mental Health Today – died while detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act (MHA).

The crux of the challenge is that deaths of people who are detained under the MHA are not investigated independently pre-inquest, as deaths in police, prison or immigration detention are. This, Dr Antoniou and his legal team contend is discriminatory and a breach of the Human Rights Act

Janey was found dead in her room at Northwick Park hospital in Harrow, London on October 23, 2010. She was detained at the time under section. An investigation into this was launched by Central and North West London NHS Trust, which ran Northwick Park.

However, Dr Antoniou objected to this and asked for the investigation to be carried out by people independent of the Trust prior to the inquest. The Trust refused, as did the then Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, who has ultimate responsibility for investigating the hundreds of deaths in psychiatric detention each year.

Dr Antoniou was granted permission to seek judicial review of that refusal by Mr Justice Irwin QC in October 2011. He is arguing that the Human Rights Act requires the investigations of deaths of sectioned patients pre-inquest to be independently conducted, in the same way as is required for deaths in other forms of detention. He also argues that it is discriminatory to single out MHA detainees as undeserving of independent investigation.

Dr Antoniou 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.”

Deborah Coles, co-director of charity 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.”

Tony Murphy, Dr Antoniou’s solicitor, said: “The law is clear that mental health detainees are to be afforded the same protection as any other type of detainee. This should include the independent investigation of their deaths in hospital pre-inquest, as bereaved families cannot be expected to have confidence in the NHS investigating itself.”