Person-centered lawyering strengthens our mental health system

Person-centered lawyering strengthens our mental health system

Monday, 30 September 2019

L-R: Photo of Program Manager of Mental Health Disability Law Sonia Law and VLA Board member George Habib
Program Manager of Mental Health and Disability Law, Sonia Law in conversation with Board member George Habib

Holistic legal representation can strengthen the recovery focus of Victoria’s Mental Health Act. This was discussed at a recent workshop about legal advocacy and the Mental Health Tribunal (MHT).

Lawyers from community legal centres and special guests joined our specialist mental health practice, to discuss ways to enhance and increase legal support for consumers on compulsory mental health treatment orders.

Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) Board Member and Deputy Director of Psychology at Monash Health, George Habib, shared his insights about how foregrounding consumers’ perspectives in both individual legal advocacy and service design can improve treatment outcomes.

‘I think the role of Victoria Legal Aid is to represent what the client-patient wants and use that voice in the system. That fits with the notion of recovery and what an individual sees as their recovery’, said George.

MHT President Matthew Carroll and Psychiatric Member Sue Carey shared practical tips for lawyers, including the need for a less adversarial approach. ‘Advocacy at the MHT should be different to VCAT and other Courts. We've been talking about a collaborative project between VLA, the MHT and the Mental Health Legal Centre because the MHT has a different role to VCAT and the courts’, said Matthew.  

Julie Anderson, the Senior Consumer Advisor at the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist and Chief Mental Health Nurse, said humane legal advocacy could assist people to express and achieve their recovery goals. ‘The legal profession has supported me through life changing decisions’, said Julie.

Once labelled a ‘revolving door consumer’ by mental health service staff, Julie urged lawyers to use the principles of the Mental Health Act in their advocacy at the MHT.

‘Have a recovery conversation that acknowledges a person’s whole identity not just defined by diagnosis and illness … with the right legal support I had the courage to live differently’, she said.

Rowan McRae, Executive Director of Civil Justice Access and Equity noted that Victoria has low rates of legal representation before the MHT. ‘Our Mental Health Act doesn’t require legal representation’ said Rowan. ‘It doesn’t require the Tribunal or mental health services to facilitate representation, refer consumers for legal representation, or notify us of hearings’, she said.

In 2017–2018 just 15 per cent of consumers facing involuntary treatment were legally represented at their MHT hearing in Victoria. In NSW where the Act requires legal representation where the consumer wants it, 80 per cent of consumers had legal representation for similar matters.

‘This disparity is something we will continue to raise before the Royal Commission into Victoria’s mental health system, as it continues its work into 2020’, said Rowan.

More information

Read our submission to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s mental health system.

Read about George Habib and our Board.


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