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J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 1997;25(2):135-47.

Almost a revolution: an international perspective on the law of involuntary commitment.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry, University of Massachusetts Medical Center, Worcester 01655, USA.


To what extent have developments in commitment law around the world paralleled trends in the United States in the last three decades? Although the American emphasis on dangerousness criteria and strigent procedural rights has been echoed in a number of other countries, it has not dominated reform in most nations. The leading alternative has been the 1983 Mental Health Act in England and Wales, with its focus on the "health and safety" of the patient, as well as protection of other persons, and its avoidance of judicial hearings. How have these reforms fared? Extensive data from the United States, and more limited data from other countries, suggest that reforms in general are resisted when they are seen as shifting the focus away from patients' treatment needs. When law fails to reflect widely held moral sentiments, it is molded in practice to conform more closely to those sentiments. It is helpful to recognize that a variety of approaches to mental health law are consistent with reasonable protection of civil liberties in a democratic society. Greater attention to practices in other countries may help reformers expand the menu of options in policy debates.

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