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LLM Mental Health Law: An interview with Kate Smith

Kate Smith, Programme and Student Lead, Online Academic Masters in Law, talks to us about the LLM Mental Health Law course, and how it is becoming more relevant to the society we live in.

By Cara Fielder. Published 27 August 2020. Last updated 6 December 2022.

The LLM Mental Health Law blends the practical with academic rigour offering a broad exploration of the ways in which mental health affects our world and the law relating to it. It touches on and impacts different aspects of our society – whether that be housing, employment, or our sense of community. It also explores how terminology such as ‘psychiatric injury’ is examined in civil law and criminal law, examines consent and capacity under statute as that pertains to both adults and children. It applies the law to real-life scenarios and asks question as to the notion of fairness for those people with mental illness who find themselves caught up in the legal system.

Though there is still a way to go, it seems that the stigma previously attached to mental health issues is beginning to dissipate, and that opens the door for conversations that were previously never had. Mental health will impact all of us whether we experience it ourselves perhaps as lawyers in the workplace, have friends or family affected, or act for or advise patients needing advice specifically on this area. It would seem a prerequisite for any law student (and actually all of us) to foster awareness, sensitivity and understanding of the impact that mental health issues can have, both personally and professionally.

The LLM Mental Health Law is for those with a keen interest in mental health and law. It would work equally well for those with direct experience of dealing with mental health issues, such as lawyers, (though previous legal knowledge is not required) medics, social workers or carers, as it would for those with no direct experience but with genuine interest in learning more, such as academics. As it is a broad course covering ten units it is likely there will be some aspects that will spark real engagement in many students. Choose it if this is a real area of interest for you and if you are attracted by its breadth.

The career paths of this course are varied. Lawyers wishing to specialise in the area of mental health law would benefit as would anyone wanting a deeper understanding of this area in order to enhance or inform their career.

We first of all define mental health. What is it? Is it the same as wellbeing? How is it defined in law? We also look at, for example, the relationship between mental health and society with a particular focus on housing; the crossover between criminal law and civil law as regards ‘psychiatric injury’; and how, when and why a person might be ‘sectioned’ in a psychiatric unit by law.

These are vital topics and are current, evolving and always in the news. An understanding of what we mean by the term ‘mental health’ and how we might measure or assess that state using the law underpins this module.

My specialism as a lawyer was, among other things, medical regulatory law and I found that what I enjoyed most about that was the interconnecting of different skills. You needed to understand the black letter law, the particular statute that governed certain outcomes, the case law relevant to the situation and so on. But just as interestingly, the best lawyers in this area were the ones who combined that knowledge with sensitivity, a natural interest and empathy towards vulnerable people. I find that the LLM in Mental Health Law demands all of those skills too and having taught complementary subjects at this level for many years, such as Tort law, Medical law and ethics, and Criminal law as well as mental health law at undergraduate level, the transition into the LLM Mental Health Law is a natural one. Plus mental health is an issue that affects all of us. We’re getting better at talking about it and this feels like a great time to be teaching this module to facilitate conversation with engaged students.

The nature of this LLM course combines the practical and the academic, so the ability to develop powers of critical analysis and reasoning is a skill that would help anyone in their everyday life in terms of informing our arguments about the world around us. Specifically, I suspect students studying this course will start to see the law in action all around them. Consider the following observations/questions: my workspace is too noisy, I feel I’m being discriminated against at work, can my elderly mother make decisions about her health even though she has dementia, can I refuse a blood transfusion in the grounds of my religion or should a child under 16 be able to choose to have or not have an abortion? These are the sorts of legal and ethical questions we seek to explore on this course, and sometimes the kinds of situations which students might come up against in their everyday lives

If you’re a student considering the LLM Mental Health Law come to it with an open, non-judgmental, sensitive and professional mindset. Do the preparation so that you get the most out of it, don’t be scared to be wrong – workshops are usually about discussion of questions that don’t always have a right answer.


Read more about our LLM Mental Health Law.