2.2.10 Civil liberties campaigns
Another source of change came from changing attitudes in the area of civil liberties. The Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 had defined categories of mental deficiency on social grounds with the result that many men, women and children had been locked up for years without any diagnosis relating to mental deficiency. The pressure group, the National Council for Civil Liberties (now known as Liberty) began campaigning in 1947 for a change in the Act. The NCCL's campaign included the identification of 850 ‘mental deficiency’ cases, for example Kathleen Bradley who had been detained for 20 years. At the age of 19, recovering from rheumatic fever, her local authority had been unable to find anyone to look after her. Though she had been in the top class at her school and had no record of being a delinquent she had been certified as a ‘mental defective’. A campaign to release her included questions in Parliament and appeals to the Board of Control. She was released in 1955.
The success of the NCCL's campaign and the realisation that there were probably approaching 6,000 similar cases led to the setting up of a Royal Commission in 1957. The Royal Commission was followed fairly swiftly by the 1959 Mental Health Act which abolished the 1913 Act and introduced Mental Health Review Tribunals. These had to include at least one non-professional member. The NCCL led teams of volunteers to act for patients at tribunals and by 1958 1,800 people had been released, with others following later (Dyson, 1994, pp. 33–35). Though the NCCL had identified injustice with some success, certification was replaced by compulsory detention defined in various sections of the 1959 and successive Mental Health Acts, a practice which came to be known as being ‘on section’ or ‘sectioning’ which is still in force today. The old Mental Deficiency Act's powers were curbed by the 1959 Act but people previously classified ‘feeble minded’ were reclassified as ‘severely subnormal’ and were still compulsorily detained.