The law on disability discrimination gives people with disabilities important rights of access to health services and social services, such as doctors' surgeries, dental surgeries, hospitals and mobile screening units:
- for example, your GP should not refuse to register, or to continue treating you, because of your disability
This also means that you have a right to information about healthcare and social services in a format that is accessible to you where it is reasonable for the service provider to provide it in that format.
For example, a hospital may provide forms and explanatory literature in large print or Braille to assist people with visual impairments, or arrange for an interpreter for someone with a hearing impairment.
Help and advice from the Equality Commission
The Equality Commission for NI provides advice if you feel you may have been discriminated against because of your disability. The commission's helpline provides advice and information about your rights.
Some of the changes which came into effect on 3 October 2007 affect people who have been diagnosed with cancer, HIV or MS and those who have mental ill health.
For more information contact the Equality Commission.
There is also specific mental health legislative protection, which covers the assessment, treatment and rights of people with a mental health condition.
Assessment and treatment
Many people receive specialist mental health care and treatment in the community. However, some people can experience severe mental health problems that require admission to hospital for assessment and treatment.
People can only be detained if the strict criteria laid down in the order are met. The person must be suffering from a mental disorder as defined in the legislation.
An application for assessment or treatment must be supported in writing by two registered medical practitioners. The recommendation must include a statement about why an assessment and/or treatment is necessary, and why other methods of dealing with the patient are not suitable.
Admissions to hospital
Most people who receive treatment in hospitals or psychiatric units for mental health conditions are there on a voluntary basis and have the same rights as people receiving treatment for physical illnesses.
However, a small number of patients may need to be compulsorily detained, the legislation explains who is involved in the decision about compulsory admission or detention and the individual's or their nearest relative's right of appeal.
Approved social workers
Approved social workers are specially trained in both mental health and the law around it. They are appointed by local trusts to interview and assess people and can make an application for admission where they consider that detention is the most suitable way of providing care and treatment.
Legally the nearest relative has certain rights which can be used to protect the patient's interests. Usually, the nearest relative is the older of the two people who occur highest in the following list, regardless of gender:
- husband, wife or civil partner
- partner (of either sex) who has lived with the patient for at least six months
- daughter or son
- father or mother
- brother or sister
- grandfather or grandmother
- aunt or uncle
- nephew or niece
Out of the list above, a person who lives with, or cares for, the patient is likely to be regarded as the nearest relative. A person who is not a relative but who has lived with the patient for at least five years can also be regarded as the nearest relative.
The nearest relative has the right to:
- make an application for compulsory assessment or treatment of the patient, or get the patient's social services in their local trust to ask an approved social worker to consider the patient's case
- be told if an approved social worker applies for the patient to be detained for compulsory assessment
- be consulted about, and object to, a social worker applying for the patient to be detained for compulsory treatment
- discharge the patient
- apply to a Mental Health Review Tribunal on behalf of the patient in certain situations
- receive written information about the patient’s detention, rights and discharge unless the patient objects
The appointment of the nearest relative can only be changed by a court. The nearest relative’s power of discharge can be over-ruled by the doctor who is responsible for the patient’s treatment. This is if the doctor thinks the patient is likely to act dangerously if discharged.
Further information and guidance on the legislation about mental health can be found on the Office of Public Sector Information website.