University of Sussex
Abbott, Simon Nicholas.pdf (1.47 MB)

Using the law in social work Approved Mental Health Professional practice

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posted on 2023-06-09, 14:30 authored by Simon Nicholas Abbott
The research study focuses on how social work Approved Mental Health Professionals (AMHPs) use the law in practice. AMHPs in England and Wales have statutory powers under the Mental Health Act 1983 (MHA) to detain people in hospital for assessment and/or treatment. The stakes in this area of law and social work are high: practitioners deal with important issues concerning individual liberty that have profound implications in relation to the power of the state to intervene in the lives of citizens, where notions of autonomy, protection, coercion and care sit in tension. The study explores the relationship between law and social work practice by interpreting meanings contained in case stories told by social work AMHPs about recent Mental Health Act assessments that they undertook. Eleven social work AMHPs, purposively selected from three different local authorities in England, participated in the study, which used qualitative in-depth interviews to collect data about using the law in circumstances where compulsory admission to hospital was a possibility. The use of case stories encouraged participants to provide a rich description of events as they unfolded over time. The data were analysed using Framework analysis (Ritchie and Spencer 1994). Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis in the form of NVIVO was utilized to manage the data, and to support data analysis. Five themes are presented in the findings chapter: understanding the referral situation; understanding the individual; understanding the situation causing concern; community versus containment, and relationships and resources. The study contributes to knowledge by illuminating how the use of law in practice is an inherently socio-relational undertaking, involving embodied practice. Bourdieu’s (1977) concept of habitus is used to make sense of participants’ accounts of the action that unfolds when they use the law. A further contribution is made to knowledge on legal literacy in social work, where there is little empirical research focusing on how social workers use the law, and still less on how mental health social workers use the law to consider compulsory powers under mental health legislation. The organisational factors impacting on how participants relate to the law are outlined and discussed drawing on legal consciousness theory (Ewick and Sibley 1998; Sibley 2005), together with an account of how participants adapt to this, drawing on street level bureaucracy (Lipsky 1990). The thesis explores the distinction in practice between medical and social perspectives occupied by AMHPs when they use the law in circumstances where compulsory admission to psychiatric hospital is a possibility. The study findings suggest that AMHPs’ perspectives are holistic and social and can be understood as occupying a socio-medical-juridical perspective. The most important factor in the decision to use compulsory powers in mental health law to detain a person involves the AMHP taking a wide perspective in terms of their understanding of the individual that is relational to the understanding of others, and understanding the person in their environment in relation to how they relate to others. The thesis outlines that the social and family situation of the person assessed, combined with views of others, and particularly the impact of risk on others, is the most influential factor in the decision to detain. This leads to the further argument that notwithstanding a holistic and social perspective, this does not necessarily lead to less coercive interventions. Medical and social perspectives thus often lead to the same conclusions in relation to decisions to use the law to detain.


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  • Social Work and Social Care Theses

Qualification level

  • doctoral

Qualification name

  • dsw


  • eng


University of Sussex

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