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2011: Restrictions of freedom

Involuntary internment


The following laws deal with involuntary internment:

  1. The Mental Health Act of 12 February 1997
  2. The Social Welfare Act of 8 February 1995
  3. The Code of Civil Procedure of 20 April 2005

The conditions for involuntary internment

The Mental Health Act deals with psychiatric inpatient care whereas the Social Welfare Act deals with the placement of a person in a social welfare institution without his/her consent or that of his/her legal representative. This is possible if the person is of unsound mind, failure to place him/her in a social welfare institution would mean that the person was a danger to him/herself or others and the application of previous measures was insufficient or the use of other measures is impossible. An application for placement can be made to a court along with an application for guardianship and the court can place the person for up to 1 year.  Once the guardianship measure has been arranged, the court may decide to prolong the placement one year at a time. Full details of the court procedure are not available.

The Code of Civil Procedure deals with the placement of people with mental disorders in psychiatric hospitals, social welfare institutions and closed institutions together with deprivation of liberty. In the Code of Civil Procedure, the placement of people in closed institutions follows on from guardianship measures. The procedure, which can be found in Chapter 54 of the Code of Civil Procedure, is described below. 

The procedure for involuntary internment

Court proceedings for involuntary placement in a closed institution can be started on the basis of a petition by the rural municipality or city government of the place where the person with the mental disorder resides and for whom the measure is intended.  

Placement may be immediate if the court has reason to believe that a delay would result in danger, provided that documents exist concerning the person’s state of health, that a representative has been appointed to the person in the proceedings and that the person him/herself has been heard, as well as the rural municipality or city government, the spouse, the guardian or trustee and the head of the closed institution. In case of absolute emergency, these people can be heard as soon as possible after placement.

In addition to hearing the person for whom the measure is intended, as well as those mentioned above, the court must obtain an expert opinion from a psychiatrist who has personally examined the person in question.

However, a person who is already in a medical institution or another similar institution may be deprived of liberty also on the basis of documents pertaining to his/her state of health.

A court ruling is pronounced stating who should be placed in a closed institution, a description of the measure, the duration of the involuntary placement and the possibility for appeal.


The duration of involuntary internment

The person may be placed in an institution for up to 1 month for observation if this is necessary for an expert observation to be made.

In emergency cases, immediate placement is possible i.e. before the full court procedure. This cannot exceed 3 months but can be extended to 6 months once the court has heard an expert. On completion of the court procedure, a person can be involuntarily placed in a closed establishment for up to 3 years from the date of the ruling.

The right to appeal and suspension of the ruling

When a ruling is made concerning involuntary placement in a closed institution, the person is informed of his/her right to appeal.

The court may decide to suspend the placement of a person in a closed institution for up to one year based on the application of the petition, the person him/herself or at the initiative of the court. Such suspension may be dependant on compliance with conditions and obligations. If the person fails to comply with these conditions or obligations, the court may annul the suspension.

Coercive measures

Restriction of personal liberty

Paragraph 136 of the Penal Code states that the unlawful deprivation of liberty of another person is punishable by a fine or up to 5 years’ imprisonment. However, the Social Welfare Act of 1995 contains provisions for the lawful deprivation of freedom. It is stated in paragraph 20 that the head of the social welfare institution or his/her substitute can restrict a person’s right to move freely insofar as this is necessary to prevent that person from leaving without supervision and to protect the rights and freedom of other people. The person can also be isolated from other people staying in the institution if S/he is considered a danger to him/herself or others. This must not be for longer than 24 hours and the isolated person must be under the constant supervision of the employees of the social welfare institution.


The Mental Health Act of 12 February 1997 covers the involuntary placement of people with mental disorders in psychiatric institutions. Paragraph 14 covers the use of means of restraint but seems to refer solely to people with a mental disorder who have been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution for emergency psychiatric care.

Reference is made to the use of isolation and physical restraint including the use of mechanical means such as straps and special clothing in order to restrict a person’s freedom of movement. It is stated that this can take place in an isolation room under the supervision of medical staff. The use of restraint is decided by doctors and must be documented in the person’s medical file along with details of the reasons for its use. It must be discontinued as soon as the danger which led to its used has ceased to exist.


Physical abuse is covered in paragraph 121 of the Penal Code which states, "Physical abuse causing damage to the health of another person, or beating, battery or other physical abuse which causes pain, is punishable by a fine or up to 3 years’ imprisonment."

Paragraph 120 covers threats made by one person to cause damage to the health or significant damage to the property of another person.

Paragraph 123 states that placing or leaving another person in a situation which is life-threatening  or likley to cause serious damage to the health of that person is punishable by a fine or up to 3 years’ imprisonment.


Website of the Ministry of Justice, section on English translations of Estonian legal acts. Please see:



Last Updated: Wednesday 14 March 2012


  • Acknowledgements

    The above information was published in the 2011 Dementia in Europe Yearbook as part of Alzheimer Europe's 2011 Work Plan which received funding from the European Union in the framework of the Health Programme. AE also gratefully acknowledges the support it received from Fondation Médéric Alzheimer for its project on restrictions of freedom and for the publication of its Yearbook.
  • European Union
  • Fondation Médéric Alzheimer