Using the law in mental health social work practice in a changing national and global context : challenges and opportunities offered by a therapeutic jurisprudence lens

Abbott, Simon (2018) Using the law in mental health social work practice in a changing national and global context : challenges and opportunities offered by a therapeutic jurisprudence lens. In: 8th European Conference for Social Work Research : Social Work in Transition : Challenges for Social Work Research in a Changing Local and Global World; 19 - 21 Apr 2018, Edinburgh, U.K.. (Unpublished)


Mental health social workers in England have statutory powers under the Mental Health Act 1983 (MHA) to detain people in hospital for assessment and/or treatment. The stakes in this area of law and social work are high: practitioners deal with important issues concerning individual liberty that have profound implications in relation to the power of the state to intervene in the lives of citizens, where notions of autonomy, protection, coercion and care sit in tension. At a national level, the numbers of people so detained have reached a 10 year high (NHS Digital 2016), bringing into question how such decisions are made. Internationally, emphasis on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) (2011) has led to calls for the repeal of laws that enable someone to be deprived of their liberty because of a disability, including a psychosocial or intellectual disability or mental disorder. Thus national and global factors require scrutiny of the way in which professionals implement law that permits deprivation of liberty, using a theoretical lens that can assist in understanding and evaluating their interpretation of the legal mandates for professional action. Therapeutic jurisprudence, with its focus on the social agency of law, here provides such a lens This paper draws on a study of how social workers who are accredited to act as Approved Mental Health Professionals (AMHPs) under the MHA use the law in practice, to consider what challenges and opportunities are offered by therapeutic jurisprudence as a framework for scrutinising social work AMHP practice. Eleven social work AMHPs, purposively selected from three different local authorities in England, participated in the study, which used qualitative in-depth interviews and practitioner diaries to collect case stories about using the law in circumstances where compulsory admission to hospital was a possibility. The use of case stories encouraged participants to provide a rich description of events as they unfolded over time. Practitioner diaries gave insight into how participants interpreted situations and gave meaning to actions and events. Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis in the form of NVIVO was utilized to manage the data, and to support data analysis using framework analysis (Ritchie and Spencer 1994). The analysis drew on Bourdieu’ s theory of practice (Bourdieu 1977) to suggest that the use of law in social work practice is an embodied social practice. This paper extends the analysis further, taking therapeutic jurisprudence as the theoretical lens for thinking about social work AMHPs’ use of the law. It argues that this offers the potential to bring a person centred and rights based approach, emphasising dignity and a relational approach to using the law. The paper addresses the main conference theme ‘social work in transition: challenges for social work research in a changing local and global world’ by illustrating how social work AMHP practice must accommodate and respond to both national and international concerns. References Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge, U.K., Cambridge University Press. Ritchie, J., & Lewis, J. (Eds.). (2003). Qualitative Research Practice. London: Sage Publications Ltd. NHS Digital (2016) Inpatients Formally Detained in Hospitals Under the Mental Health Act 1983 and patients subject to Supervised Community Treatment. 2015/2016.

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