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Police use of place of safety orders for people in mental distress

20 June 2017

A snapshot monitoring report looking at how Police Scotland use their power to detain people in police stations under the Mental Health Act shows wide variations in use of these powers in different parts of Scotland.

The report, published today by the Mental Welfare Commission, also appears to show a lower use of these powers in Scotland than has been found in England and Wales.

Place of safety orders can be used by the police when they find someone in a public place who they believe may have mental ill health and may be in need of immediate care and treatment. The person can be detained in a place of safety for up to 24 hours so they can be assessed by a doctor.

A local plan identifying a designated place of safety, such as a local psychiatric hospital, should be in place for such incidents. A police station should only be used in exceptional circumstances.

The police should notify the Mental Welfare Commission every time a person is held under these powers.

Gary Morrison, Executive Director (Medical) at the Mental Welfare Commission, said:

"Our snapshot three month report shows higher numbers of place of safety orders than we saw in the annual figures, but we are mindful that this may be a short term fluctuation. Even with these changes, Scotland still reports lower levels of use of place of safety in police stations compared to England and Wales.

"There were very wide variations in reported use of these powers across Scotland, with notably higher use in Fife, Highlands and Grampian. These are too wide to be explained by local variations in the level of mental illness.

"We do not know why this is the case, but we believe that either reporting processes are failing in some areas, or people are being removed for assessment without proper legal authority. A third possibility is that the police are using criminal legislation to remove people who they think are mentally ill from a public place.

"Given this lack of clarity, we will take a number of actions, including liaising with Police Scotland, health boards, local authorities and integrated boards. We will also carry out a more detailed exercise later in 2017, working with Police Scotland."


Information provided to the Commission in recent years has shown an increase in the overall numbers of these orders, from 130 in 2006/07 to 795 in 2015/16. The Commission believes this is due to better reporting.

Of the 795 instances in 2015/16, the Commission was told of only seven times where a police station was used as a place of safety.

To seek to understand the figures better, the Commission looked in more detail at the use of these powers over a three month period, from May to July in 2016. The data showed higher levels of use of these powers, and a striking variation in how many times they were used in different parts of the country. They also showed an increase in the number of times police stations were used as a place of safety.

A copy of the monitoring report is available here.

Mary Mowat: 0131 313 8786