Mar 11, 2022

Mental Illness: Supreme Court’s recent interventions 

What is “Mental Illness”?

Section 2(s) of the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 defines ‘mental illness as a substantial disorder of thinking, mood, perception, orientation or memory that impairs a person’s judgment, their capacity to recognise reality or their ability to meet the ordinary demands of life’. It includes mental conditions associated with alcohol and drug abuse but does not include mental retardation. 

To understand more about the law on mental illness and the rights it grants, you can explore our explainer on Mental Health.

Can “Mental Illness” be considered a disability? 

Yes, if the condition is beyond a certain specified limit. Section 2(s) of The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 (RPWD Act) defines a “person with disability” as someone with long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment, which hinders their ability to take part in society effectively. A “person with benchmark disability” is defined under Section 2(r) of the RPWD Act to include persons who have specified disabilities beyond a prescribed limit.

The list of Specified Disabilities enumerated in the Schedule to the RPWD Act includes “Mental Illness”. 

Are there any special provisions in the RPWD Act for persons with Mental Illness? 

Chapter VI of the RPWD Act lists out ‘Special provisions for persons with benchmark disabilities’, including persons with mental illness beyond the prescribed limit. Section 32 and Section 34 of the RPWD Act provides for reservation in higher educational institutions and Government establishments, respectively. 

What was the Supreme Court’s recent viewpoint? 

The Supreme Court recently reinstated a person in the position of a judicial officer, who had applied for the post in the reserved category of persons with disability in the case of Akanksha Singh v. High Court of Delhi. The disability, in this case, was a “Mental Illness” (Bipolar Affective Disorder) and he had submitted a disability certificate that certified his disability to be 45%. They denied this person the post because they found his disability to be temporary, since the disability certificate mentioned that the Mental Illness was in recession. The Supreme Court rejected this reasoning and said that as long as a Medical Board could certify that the person could discharge the functions of a judicial officer, he was entitled to reservation under Section 34 of the RPWD Act. The fact that the disability in question could be kept in check by the use of medication did not affect his entitlement.

What about discrimination faced by persons with mental illness?

The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 has specific provisions that prohibit discrimination as far as the right to access mental healthcare and treatment provided by the Government is considered. Similarly, the RPWD Act warns against discriminating against persons with disabilities generally, and specifically with access to justice, admissions in educational institutions and employment. To learn more about employment rights of persons with disabilities, check out our Workplace Guide for Persons with Disabilities.

In another judgement, the Supreme Court recently set aside disciplinary proceedings against a person with mental illness/disability because it was an act of indirect discrimination. They observed that persons with mental disabilities are more vulnerable to engage in conduct that can be classified as misconduct because of their disabilities. They are then more likely to become the subject of disciplinary proceedings. However, holding such disciplinary proceedings would be discriminatory. The Court invoked Section 20(4) of the RPWD Act, which provides for reasonable accommodation to be made for a person who has acquired a disability during employment. It directed the employer to find a suitable post with the same pay scale and benefits.

Both these judgments show the Supreme Court of India’s progressive attitude towards persons with mental illness, especially in matters of employment. 

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