Introduction: In the regulation of involuntary treatment, a balance must be found between duties of care and protection and the right to self-determination. Despite its shared common roots, the mental health legislation of Commonwealth countries approaches this balance in different ways. When reform is planned, lessons can be learned from the experiences of other countries.
Method: Criteria for involuntary treatment used in a sample of 32 Commonwealth Mental Health Acts were compared using a framework developed from standards derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Reasons for non-compliance were considered and examples of good practice were noted. Changes in the criteria used over time and across areas with differing levels of economic development were analysed.
Results: 1. Widespread deviation from standards was demonstrated, suggesting that some current legislation may be inadequate for the protection of the human rights of people with mental disorders. 2. Current trends in Commonwealth mental health law reform include a move towards broad diagnostic criteria, use of capacity and treatability tests, treatment in the interests of health rather than safety, and regular reviews of treatment orders. Nevertheless, there are some striking exceptions.
Discussion: Explanations for deviation from the standards include differing value perspectives underpinning approaches to balancing conflicting principles, failure to keep pace with changing attitudes to mental disorder, and variations in the resources available for providing treatment and undertaking law reform. Current good practice provides examples of ways of dealing with some of these difficulties.