Responses to an initial report by the government's Mental Health Act review team suggest that opposition to compulsory treatment in the community may be crumbling.

The prospect of forced treatment in community settings, favoured by the government, was strongly criticised by mental health charities when the review was announced.

But their responses to the initial recommendations of the expert panel, released last week for informal consultation, are less confrontational.

The draft recommendations enshrine new rights for service users, including the right to assessment and 'adequate' level of services. They say compulsory intervention is justified if there is a 'substantial risk of serious harm' to the health and safety of the patient or others, even if the patient has the 'capacity' to make treatment decisions.

The current system of mental health review tribunals is to be replaced by independent specialist tribunals, with powers to decide whether compulsory orders are necessary, approve care plans and hear appeals from patients. The key principles of the new system are 'non-discrimination and patient autonomy'.

Matt Muijen, director of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, said the proposals were 'humane'. He added: 'It is not as black and white an issue as the charities have presented.'

Mind stuck to its original position and 'deeply regretted' the committee's insistence on extending compulsory powers into the community.

But the National Schizophrenia Fellowship admitted it was dropping its opposition following a survey of more than 2,000 service users, professionals and carers.

More than half of those who responded supported compulsory treatment in the community, as did 48 per cent of service users.

NSF spokesman Paul Farmer said it was clear that the main issue for respondents was access to good care and treatment, not compulsory orders. 'Many people who have been through the traumatic experience of being sectioned feel that an alternative, if it's offered, is worth considering.'

Trust managers were impressed by the committee's efforts to update the act. Roger Pedley, chief executive of Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health trust, said the proposal on compulsion was designed to prevent 'revolving door' hospital admissions.

'Independent specialist tribunals are a radical shift which responds to the concerns that have been expressed about due process,' he said.

The committee will make final recommendations in July.