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Mental health law briefing 181 – Search policies

A recent Inquest has highlighted the importance of having a detailed policy setting out the procedures for personal searches of patients.

Staff may be called upon to undertake personal searches of patients and visitors as part of their role in maintaining the safety of service users and promoting a safe environment in the hospital setting. The procedures for searches must be governed by clear and precise guidance for staff who may otherwise be subject to claims that a search has violated the human rights of a patient or visitor. There must be clear reasons for searches being undertaken, usually having regard to the risk assessments undertaken specifically based on the presentation of a patient’s risk of self-harm or risk that the patient poses to others in the unit.

The Mental Health Act Code of Practice requires hospital managers to ensure that there is an operational policy on searching patients detained under the MHA. The Code sets out a list of principles on which such a policy should be based. It also makes clear that patients, staff and visitors should be informed about the search policy.

During the course of the Inquest referred to above, staff who were called to give evidence were questioned about their understanding of the search policy in place at the unit and the training that they had received in relation to that policy. This questioning came in the light of the tragic death of a patient who had had a history of self-harm and who had purchased razor blades whilst on leave from the unit. A search undertaken when the patient returned to the unit failed to reveal that she was carrying the blades. She subsequently swallowed the blades.

We have substantial experience of advising and drafting policies dealing with a range of issues concerning healthcare bodies, including search policies. Should you require any such advice please do not hesitate to contact us.

Alexandra Johnstone
© RadcliffesLeBrasseur


This briefing is for guidance purposes only. RadcliffesLeBrasseur LLP accepts no responsibility or liability whatsoever for any action taken or not taken in relation to this note and recommends that appropriate legal advice be taken having regard to a client's own particular circumstances.

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