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What is Mental Health Law?

By C. Webb
Updated May 17, 2024
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Mental health law refers to law regarding the mental competence of an individual. Civil and criminal proceedings are both covered under mental health law. Different regions have different benchmarks to determine a person's competence level and which rights can be removed from a person who is deemed incompetent.

In the civil arena, mental health law is used to determine whether someone is mentally competent enough to enter into a legally binding contract. Contracts are used to make purchases, promise services, and solidify actions including marriage, divorce, and adoption. A person who has been deemed mentally incompetent can be prohibited from entering such contracts without the approval of a guardian or mental health professional.

An individual's assets can be protected by mental health law. Someone who has been declared mentally incompetent will not typically be allowed to maintain control over his or her finances. A trustee or family member is usually appointed to handle the money, which is placed in a trust fund. The money is used to provide for the individual's needs. This can mean the person in question receives a regularly disbursed allowance, or it can mean that every bill is paid for by the trustee out of the trust fund.

For criminal cases, mental health law is used to determine whether a person is capable of standing trial for a crime he or she is charged with committing. The law tests the individual's ability to understand the ramifications of the crime as well as his or her responsibility in regard to committing it. It also determines the defendant's ability to understand court proceedings and to participate in his or her defense. Each region has its own rules about what constitutes the understanding of responsibility for actions and participation in court proceedings.

Involuntary commitment to a psychiatric facility is also governed by mental health law. The right to freedom cannot be removed without evidence that the individual is a self-danger or a danger to society. Each region has time lines and commitment standards that must be followed for involuntary detention in any psychiatric facility.

Some regions have enacted laws that enable individuals to draw up advance directives when it comes to their future mental health issues. Just as a medical advance directive dictates the individual's desired level of care for a future medical scenario, a mental health advance directive provides the individual's wishes for care in the event of a mental health crisis. Examples of mental health advance directives include preferred facility type, named financial trustees, and disposition of property.

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