Increased legal help, but many still unrepresented at Mental Health Tribunal

Increased legal help, but many still unrepresented at Mental Health Tribunal

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Specialist mental health and disability legal services at Victoria Legal Aid are currently reaching more people than ever before.

However the vast majority – more than 80 per cent – of Mental Health Tribunal hearings (where decisions are made about whether the criteria for compulsory treatment has been met) are still being conducted without the benefit of legal representation.

An expansion of our services has led to a substantial increase in the availability of legal help over the past four years, such as:

  • Mental Health Tribunal hearings: In 2012–13 we undertook 498 representations. This number rose to 1153 in 2015–16
  • Representations in rural and regional areas have nearly doubled over the same time frame from 106 to 210
  • Specialist advice sessions have also greatly increased, from 1696 to 3375.

Chris Povey, Manager Mental Health and Disability Law, said: ‘There is still a lot more to be done to make the rights set out in the Mental Health Act a reality.

'Compulsory treatment involves a significant loss of freedom, and almost 3000 Victorians are in this situation on any given day.

'Lawyers build awareness of rights and the Tribunal process, and make sure that the wishes and preferences of people being compulsorily treated are heard.

'Data shows that where legal help is available, people are much more likely to attend their hearing. This means people with lawyers are more likely to be a part of the decision-making process and know their rights,' Mr Povey said.

'I've felt vulnerable every time. You don't feel well, and it's difficult to negotiate things, but having legal representation, at least somebody is on my side. It's a very unsettling time, and very disruptive to your life.

'The good thing about legal representation is talking about the case – it's an individual thing and quite reassuring. I do have some understanding now of what my rights are.' – A consumer.

Mr Povey said the lack of legal support was particularly concerning in hearings to decide whether a person would receive electroconvulsive treatment (ECT) against their wishes.

‘Of 711 ECT hearings, only 68 – less than 10 per cent – involved legal representation. This is a stark contrast to the situation in New South Wales, where 78 per cent are represented.’

Mr Povey said that recent research undertaken by one of his team's senior lawyers, Eleanore Fritze, found that in New York and the United Kingdom, almost everyone subject to mental health laws gets representation.

More information

Read recent research by consultant psychiatrist Dr Michael Gardner, showing that patients with legal representation were given lengthier hearings and shorter periods of compulsory treatment than those who were unrepresented.

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