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MENTAL HEALTH AND THE LEGAL FRAMEWORK

INTRODUCTION

The World Health Organization defines mental health as follows: “Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and can make a contribution to his community.[1]

In today’s fast-paced world where everyone is constantly striving to ameliorate their lives against the backdrop of heavy competition, technological advancements, deteriorating relationships and whatnot, it has become of paramount importance to bring the issue of mental health into the spotlight.  As American Judge, Benjamin N. Cardozo said, “The final cause of law is the welfare of society.” It is indeed the truth that law must be adaptable to the needs of society and should not be rigorous and rigid. The law cannot be unchangeable.

The need of the hour is laws that address the issue of mental health. While there have been considerable positive changes in the current legal system of India to accommodate the requirements of the pertaining issue, we still have a long way to go in order to fully develop into a nation that treats the mentally disabled people with dignity.

WHO IS MENTALLY UNFIT ACCORDING TO THE LAW?

Section 84 of the IPC reads, “Nothing is an offence which is done by a person who, at the time of doing it, by reason of unsoundness of mind, is incapable of knowing the nature of the act, or that he is doing what is either wrong or contrary to law.”[2]

Section 84 also mentions three extremely crucial points when judging whether a person is mentally unfit or not. They are:

  • The accused must have displayed symptoms of mental illness at the time wrongdoing was committed. The onus of proof rests with the person asserting insanity.
  • Eclectic insanity may fall under this section if it is proven that the accused was suffering from it while the crime was being committed.[3]

Thus, it is a fact that those who are mentally incompetent are treated differently in the eyes of law than those who are not.

CURRENT LAWS AND GUIDELINES:

UNSOUND MIND IN THE INDIAN CONTRACT ACT, 1872

Section 12 of the Indian Contract Ac[4]t defines that a sound mind is a prerequisite for being able to enter into a contract and states that, “a person is considered competent to enter into a contract if, at the time it is entered into, he understands the contract and is able to make reasonable judgments about the effect on his interests. People who are usually insane, but have sane minds occasionally, sometimes make deals when they have sane minds.”

UNSOUND MIND IN THE CONTEXT OF MARRIAGE

Both parties must be capable of consenting to the union at the time of marriage, according to Section 5(ii) of the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955[5]. Any mental illness that renders a person unfit for marriage and childbearing, having recurrent episodes of insanity is not acceptable for either party to a marriage. According to Section 13(1)(iii) of the Act, being mentally ill or experiencing any other type of mental condition can also become a reason for divorce.[6]

In the case of Lakshmi Narayan v. Santhi, the honourable Supreme Court ruled that a mental infirmity objection to marriage must hinge on a “question of degree of deficiency” in order to determine the marriage’s legality. The petitioner who is seeking to have the marriage annulled bears the burden of launching a lawsuit under this provision.[7]

THE NATIONAL TRUST ACT, 1999

“The National Trust for the Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities Act”[8], 1999 allows and empowers disabled people to live as independently and fully as they can in and around the community to which they belong. This Act also stipulated the formation of a ‘National Trust’ which was authorized to perform two basic duties- legal and welfare under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Few objectives of this trust are mentioned below:

  • To make it easier for disabled people to realise their rights to full inclusion, equal opportunity, and protection of their rights
  • To guarantee support and look after the organisations and groups that provide need-based services.
  • To improve the processes for appointing trustees and guardians for people with disabilities.
UN CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES, 2006 AND IT’S AFTERMATH IN INDIA

The Convention on the “Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol”[9] was adopted on December 13th, 2006 and it was made available for signature on March 30th, 2007. India ratified this convention in the month of October in the same year. Article 4 of the Convention calls upon the States to engage in development and modelling of laws, measures and policies for securing the rights of the disabled people acknowledged in it and eliminate rules, traditions, and behaviours that are considered discriminatory towards them.

India, as an aftermath of this convention, enacted the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016.[10] This Act ensures that people with disabilities are treated with respect and dignity in social, legal, economic as well as political spheres. It seeks to protect and promote their rights.

MENTAL HEALTH CARE ACT, 2017

India has always been making room for the mentally disabled people in it’s laws and regulations. Be it through the pre-independent Acts like “Indian Lunatic Asylum Act, 1858”[11] and the “Indian Lunacy Act, 1912”[12] or the post-independent “Mental Health Care Act of 1987”.[13] However, the constricted approach towards the subject has attracted sharp criticism. For instance, the Mental Health Care Act, 1987 consisted of several prominent lacunae which needed redressal:

  • “Restricted the meaning of ‘mental illness’ to ‘mental disorder.’
  • The WHO guidelines regarding the persons with mental illness were not taken into account.
  • A lot of stress was laid on licensing the authorities and, despite that they lacked the provision for a doctor who could be more qualified to evaluate the services and amenities provided by facilities that care for the mentally impaired.
  • The notion of establishing new hospitals was appreciated but in a developing country like India, that proved to be a costly affair. It created a significant dent on the health budget.”[14]

The Parliament in order to make amends in the shortcomings of the Mental Health Care Act of 1987[15], passed the freshly drafted Mental Health Care Act, 2017[16]. This Act broadens the definition of ‘mental illness’ and provides for the constitution of a Central Mental Health Authority and State Mental Health Authorities which ultimately promise quality and affordable mental healthcare. One of the monumental features of this Act was recognition of mental stress and decriminalization of attempt to suicide which was previously a crime under Section 309 of the IPC, 1860[17]. Through this Act, the government adequately takes care of the WHO policies as well.

CONCLUSION

The concept of mental health is an evolving process in India and the taboos around it are dissipating gradually because of the continuous efforts the government and various policies formulated by them. The legal and administrative framework is also considerate to those the law deems mentally unfit. However, there are still issues regarding mental health that our country is currently grappling with. A survey of 200,000 professionals in India found that 46% of people reported that they suffered from extreme stress due to their work. In addition, 43% of persons have an unbalanced body mass index, with 30% of them having a higher chance of developing diabetes and another 30% having a higher risk of developing hypertension.[18] There are prevailing mental health problems faced by students as well which the laws fail to be inclusive of. The society also needs to get properly informed about various kinds of mental illness and through education on the subject, it must transform and serve those who are suffering with respect and compassion. The legal scope of mental health is currently limited, but this will change as more progressive laws are implemented throughout India.

Author(s) Name: Mrinalini (National Law University, Odisha)

References:

[1] ‘Mental Health’ (World Health Organization) <https://www.who.int/data/gho/data/themes/theme-details/GHO/mental-health> accessed 02 December 2022

[2] Indian Penal Code 1860, s 84

[3] Bhansingh v State of MP (1989) ILR 1990 MP 517

[4] Indian Contract Act 1872, s 4

[5] Hindu Marriage Act 1955, s 5(ii)

[6] Hindu Marriage Act 1955, s 13(1)(iii)

[7] Lakshmi Narayan v Santhi (2001) 4 SCC 688

[8] ‘The National Trust’ (The National Trust)<https://thenationaltrust.gov.in/content/> accessed 04 December 2022

[9] ‘Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ (United Nations) <https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities/the-convention-in-brief.html>  accessed 04 December 2022

[10] Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016

[11] Indian Lunatic Asylum Act 1858

[12] Indian Lunacy Act 1912

[13] Mental Health Care Act 1987

[14] Rastogi DP, ‘Mental Health Act,1987 – An Analysis’  (2005) 27 (3) Journal of Indian Academy of Forensic Medicine 14-38

[15] Mental Health Care Act 1987

[16] Mental Health Care Act 2017

[17] Indian Penal Code 1860, s 309

[18] Rica Bhattacharyya & Kala Vijayaraghavan, ‘Work Force in India and Stress’  (Economic Times, 11 June 2016) <https://m.economictimes.com/jobs/46-of-workforce-in-firms-in-india-suffer-from-some-or-the-other-form-of-stress-data/articleshow/52696795.cms> accessed 09 December 2023