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Families Launch Legal Fight To End People With Learning Disabilities And Autism Being Detained Under Mental Health Act

Parents Label Current Practice ‘National Scandal’ As They Launch Crowdfunding Campaign


Andrew Hewitt, Press Officer | 0114 274 4255

Families have launched a legal campaign to end the “national scandal” of people with autism and learning disabilities from being detained under the Mental Health Act. 

The parents are concerned that the Mental Health Act is being used to detain people with autism and learning disabilities, often in mental health hospitals, also known as assessment and treatment units (ATUs), even where they do not have a mental illness.

Campaigners want the government to remove autism and learning disabilities from the definition of what constitutes a “mental disorder” under the legislation.

Two families from Windsor and North London have launched a crowdfunding appeal which will allow specialist lawyers at Irwin Mitchell to advise on whether there are grounds to bring a judicial review challenging the government.

At the end of March 2019, 2,260 people with autism or learning disabilities were being detained in mental health hospitals, NHS figures show.

Expert Opinion
"Under the current law people with autism or a learning disability can be detained in a mental health hospital or ATU, even if they do not have an accompanying mental health diagnosis.

“Families are extremely concerned that their sons or daughters who have autism or learning disabilities are at risk of detention should they display behaviours that challenge.

“This is an issue which is causing great worry, not only to our clients but thousands of others. This is reflected by more than 45,000 people signing a petition calling on the government to stop the detention of people with autism and learning disabilities in ATUs.

“The families have requested that we investigate this issue as they believe the government is failing in its duty towards some of society’s most vulnerable people.”
Anne-Marie Irwin, Senior Associate Solicitor

Tim Nicholls, Head of Policy, at the National Autistic Society, said: "Autism and learning disabilities are not mental health conditions. But they are defined as mental disorders in the Mental Health Act.

“This means that people who are autistic or have a learning disability can be detained even when they do not have a treatable mental health condition. This is wrong and part of the reason behind the national scandal of autistic children and adults getting stuck in mental health hospitals - and in some distressing cases being subject to seclusion, restraint and over-medication.

"Hospital wards are not designed for people without a treatable medical condition. They can be noisy, bright and unpredictable and this can be completely overwhelming for many people who are autistic or have a learning disability - and inadvertently make their life even harder.

"We and thousands of our supporters have been calling on the Government to review this definition and we welcome this potential legal action. We hope it will help end this national scandal and make sure vulnerable people get the support they need in their own community, near their family and friends."

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in handling public law cases  

For more information on the families’ crowdfunding campaign visit: www.crowdjustice.com/draft/3932/r/LWKI5qCxQAydxoRXDXcS7A/

For more on the petition calling on the government to debate the issue in parliament visit: petition.parliament.uk/petitions/231406

Case Studies


Caroline Hopton has two sons with autism, Oliver, 19, and 21-year-old Harry. She has recently campaigned to change the law for parents of disabled adults to retain the legal right to make important decisions about their welfare.

Oliver spent a number of years living away from the family in residential care facilities. He returned home in 2017 after alleged mistreatment in two consecutive facilities.

As a result of the care and support Oliver currently receives at home and at college, he is happily now progressing in every way.

Caroline, 56, said: “I do not see my sons' 'disability' but rather cherish and enjoy them both for the wonderful, uniquely talented, honest and interesting human beings they are. 

“Both Oliver and Harry have amazing talents; Oliver has taught himself the names of colours in different languages and has the ability to scan a roll of fabric samples and then later write the names of each sample in the exact shade of its colour.

“Harry designs anti-bullying tattoos, after he was bullied during secondary school. This has been a very cathartic process for Harry and has started to help him overcome the emotional pain that he carries from this time.

“People with autism and or learning disabilities are too readily underestimated and misunderstood by society and sadly this carries over in how they are supported by the state throughout their lives.

“Oliver is testament to the fact that a person with autism and/or learning disability can thrive when living with their family and being part of the community, as long as they are given the appropriate support, love and understanding. 

“Since Oliver  returned home he has changed beyond recognition. He is happy and flourishing and the anxiety-led behaviours of the past have virtually disappeared. I feel as though I have my son back, not just in person but in spirit.

“Oliver attends a day college which he absolutely loves and he lives at home with the support and love of his family. It would be tragic for Oliver if for any reason this support was removed.  He would become extremely distressed and confused which would inevitably result in anxiety-based behavioural issues. 

“Although Oliver has no mental health condition, he could still be at risk of being inappropriately detained.

“The detention of autistic and learning disabled people under the Mental Health Act, in mental health hospitals and ATUs is a national scandal. This needs to change and our vulnerable children must be protected and supported to lead the fulfilled and enriched lives that they so deserve and which is their right”


Anmol Johar has autism and significant learning disabilities.

Until the age of 19, Anmol was in a full time autism specific school but his last year was increasingly difficult as Anmol craved an environment where he had the freedom to make choices. 

After he started displaying extremely challenging behaviours on a daily basis, his parents decided to take Anmol out of school and keep him at home. 

The 24-year-old lives at home and is cared for full-time by parents, dad Inder, 56 and mum, Rani , 54, as well as a specialist support worker.  

Inder said: “This was the best decision we made for Anmol and ourselves.  We empowered Anmol to make his own decisions, no matter how mundane his choice may seem to us. As long as his choices are legal, not ridiculously dangerous and he can afford it, we support him.

“Anmol’s challenging behaviours decreased once he was back home. Now, despite his many challenges, he is a happy, fun-loving, cheeky and charismatic young man and brings a lot of joy into our family’s life.

“If we were no longer in Anmol’s life for whatever reason and his support broke down or failed through no fault of his, we are concerned that he would become a target to be detained under the Mental Health Act simply because he has a diagnosis of autism.”