NI: Mental Capacity Bill shows Stormont at its best
Linda Johnston, partner at Francis Hanna & Co Solicitors, writes about the passing of the Mental Capacity Bill by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
For most of my life, Stormont has symbolised political strife and dysfunction. However, on 15th March 2016, from the visitor’s gallery, I witnessed the Assembly at its best, passing ground-breaking legislation with constructive cross-party support. What a refreshing change!
Hard as it may be to believe, the NI Assembly has pulled off a global first by passing the Mental Capacity Bill. The unique aspect of this complex legislation is its breadth, in that it covers both adult mental health issues and mental capacity issues. The average citizen would presume that matters concerning mental health and mental capacity should surely overlap, but until now these have been issues that have been professionally separated by lawyers, medical professionals and the justice system. The new legislation is a fused Bill which overarches all mental health issues affecting our adult population. It has the potential to touch on the lives of each and every citizen, either personally or in their capacity as a carer to another.
Key to the legislation is the recognition of a fundamental right for each of us to make as many independent decisions as possible, for as long as possible and if necessary with support from others.
The 10-year lead up to the passing of the Mental Capacity Bill was recognised by the Health Minister who acknowledged the high level of engagement with stakeholders and experts throughout the process, right from the initial steps of the Bamford Review. Both the Health and Justice Departments should be congratulated on their extensive consultation.
Let’s hope that the quality of this Mental Capacity Bill is followed by good implementation. That will be dependent of significant funds and a major programme of education and training. Much more work will be needed on Codes of Practice and Regulations, but the foundation is now in place.
Although there were few in the public gallery, and not many on the floor of the Assembly, something momentous happened in the Assembly on 15th March 2016. I am glad I was there to see it.