Ambulance paramedics will be given the authority to arrest and frisk people with mental illnesses in emergency situations, under changes to mental health laws being considered by the ACT government.
Victims of crimes committed by people subsequently detained in forensic mental health facilities would have a legal right to be informed if the patient escaped or was released, under a draft released for community consultation.
The changes would include a greater focus on the human rights of mental health consumers, including recognising "advance agreements'' entered into by patients and their treatment teams.
But the Canberra Liberals warn the legislation will need to tread the fine line between providing ambulance officers with appropriate powers, and potentially putting them in harm’s way.
Chief Minister and Health Minister Katy Gallagher said new powers would enable paramedics, rather than police, to transport patients to hospital for assessment, where appropriate.
The draft also clarifies the powers of paramedics when they are the first to respond to mental health emergencies.
"I think they can be in positions where they feel a bit vulnerable about whether they need to take certain steps with individuals,'' Ms Gallagher said.
In 2011-12, people were detained under emergency mental health powers 942 times, in most cases by police.
The government released a set of draft changes to mental health laws for discussion in August last year. A further draft has now been released that takes into account recommendations made by stakeholders.
Some of the draft changes concern people deemed unfit to stand trial for a criminal offence due to mental ill-health.
Relevant "affected persons'' - usually victims of crimes - would have to be informed when a forensic mental health patient was detained, absconded, transferred to another jurisdiction or released into the community.
The Victims of Crime Commissioner was concerned an earlier draft had not made it compulsory to disclose such information.
Ms Gallagher said new laws would include a greater emphasis on advanced agreements that allowed consumers a greater say on how they would be treated and cared for.
"If you can find capacity within that legislation to give people a greater say about their treatment and how they are treated under the act then that's a good thing and I think that's what we've tried in the time we've taken to consult with people,'' the Chief Minister said.
Under the changes, applicants for mental health orders would have to address capacity issues in the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal before orders were made.
"Some of the vexed issues are around those areas of rights and different perspectives,'' Ms Gallagher said. "Often carers and families have different views to the consumers, who have different views to the courts, who have different views to the clinicians. My view is we've taken quite a lot of time to try and find the right balance.''
The changes under discussion would place new restrictions on the use of electro-convulsive therapy on minors. They would also encourage mental health staff to work more closely with the families and carers of mental health clients where privacy protections permitted this.