A new law to restrict the use of force against patients in mental health units will come into effect today after an eight-year battle by the family of young black man who died after prolonged restraint by police.
The legislation will force NHS trusts to increase transparency about the restraint of patients, including making police officers wear body cameras when dealing with vulnerable people.
The reforms are known as “Seni’s Law” in memory of IT graduate Olaseni Lewis, who died in September 2010 after being restrained by 11 police officers at Bethlem Royal Hospital in south-east London.
Lewis, who was 23, died three days after he was subjected to two periods of restraint by police lasting more than 30 minutes.
He had no history of violence or mental illness and had been taken to the hospital by his parents after an episode of mental ill-health that began over the August bank holiday weekend.
Although Lewis attended hospital for an overnight stay as a voluntary patient, when he tried to leave at about 9.30pm on 31 August, a doctor called police to ask for their assistance in detaining him under the Mental Health Act.
A struggle with officers led to Lewis having his hands handcuffed behind his head and his legs placed in two sets of shackles while they tried to lock him in a seclusion room.
An inquest held seven years later found the officers, none of whom faced any criminal charges, had used “excessive force, pain compliance techniques and multiple mechanical restraints” on Lewis that were “were disproportionate and unreasonable” and were likely to have led to his death from a hypoxic brain injury and cardiorespiratory arrest.
MP Steve Reed, whose Private Members Bill last November led to the new law, said restraint was used 97,000 times in mental health units last year.
And between 2016/17, 48 out of England’s 56 mental health trusts reported 3,652 patients experiencing injuries following being restrained – the highest on record.
Reed said: “Aji and Conrad Lewis came to see me after their son Seni died after being restrained in a mental health unit by eleven police officers.
“Seni’s parents were left to fight the state for years to find out what had happened.
“Serious failings by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan Police meant no inquest into Seni’s death was held for seven years.
“When the coroner’s verdict finally came in June 2017, it found that Seni had been subject to ‘prolonged disproportionate and unreasonable’ restraint.
“Training for police and hospital staff was inadequate, responsibilities were unclear, medical staff failed to respond to the medical emergency and the hospital was failing to follow its own policies on patient safety. The coroner warned that without change further deaths could occur.”
Reed, the Shadow Minister for Civil Society, added: “Although this bill is called Seni’s law in honour of Seni, it’s affected many, many people beyond Seni who have lost their lives or been injured simply because they were unwell.
“The purpose of this bill is to make sure this can’t happen again.
“This is our chance to make mental health services safe and equal for everyone.”
The new legislation, officially called the Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Bill, will open up mental health services to greater transparency with data showing how institutions and regions compare against each other over their use of restraint, and exposing the extent of bias against particular groups.
Police will be required to wear body cameras when carrying out restraint while mental health care providers will have to put in place policies on reducing the use of restraint and improving de-escalation techniques.
It will also speed up an independent investigation when someone dies after being restrained.
Ajibola Lewis, Seni’s mother said: “When Seni became ill, we took him to hospital which we thought was the best place for him. We shall always bear the cross of knowing that, instead of the help and care he needed, Seni met with his death.
“You question yourself, you question everybody around you – what did we do wrong? We thought we took him to a place of safety. You blame yourself.”
Seni’s mother said it had taken the family “years of struggle to find out what happened” to him. “There were failures at multiple levels amongst the management and staff at Bethlem Royal Hospital where, instead of looking after him, they called the police to deal with him; and the brute force with which the police held Seni in a prolonged restraint which they knew to be dangerous, a restraint that was maintained until Seni was dead for all intents and purposes.
“We don’t want anyone else to go through what our son went through. We welcome the new law in his memory, in the hope that it proves to be a lasting legacy in his name, so that no other family has to suffer as we have suffered.”