Sun. Jun 20th, 2021

(The Center Square) – Psychiatric patients who are involuntarily held in New Hampshire as a result of a mental health crisis are entitled to due process, including a speedy court hearing.

That’s according to a landmark ruling issued by the Supreme Court of New Hampshire, which will require the state to hold court hearings for mental health patients within three days of being involuntarily committed for evaluation.

The class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of a New Hampshire woman identified only as “Jane Doe” who spent several weeks in a private hospital under involuntary commitment before she was admitted to a state-run mental health facility.

In its 18-page ruling, the Supreme Court said Doe’s rights had been violated because “upon being certified for involuntary emergency admission and, thus, being admitted to the state mental health services system, she did not receive a probable cause hearing within three days of her admission.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, which signed onto the legal challenge and filed a similar one in federal court, said the ruling “recognizes that those being boarded in hospital emergency rooms are human beings entitled to prompt due process.”

“For far too long, a lack of community-based mental health treatment options has meant some people, including our clients, have been held without probable cause hearings for weeks in emergency rooms, without access to a state-appointed lawyer or an opportunity to timely contest their detention. It also means they have often been unable to return home to their families or jobs,” Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire, said.

Under state law, patients are already required to have a court hearing on their commitment within three days.

The state Department of Health and Human Services has argued that that requirement meant the three-day period kicked in once patients were checked into a psychiatric facility.

Mental health advocates say the shortage of beds means that patients are “warehoused” in private hospitals for weeks – even months – as they wait for an opening in a state-run facility.

But the high court rejected the state’s argument that the process begins when a patient is placed in a psychiatric facility, saying that the health department was “statutorily mandated” to ensure that patients aren’t deprived of due process.

“Nothing in the statutory scheme allows a person to be held indefinitely pending delivery to a receiving facility,” the justices wrote. “There is also no statutory requirement for re-examination or re-certification of the person when that person is delivered to a designated receiving facility, which underscores the conclusion that admission to the mental health services system has already occurred before delivery, that is, at the time of certification.”