‘The saddest case’ – we support Ombudsman’s findings

‘The saddest case’ – we support Ombudsman’s findings

Monday, 29 October 2018

Systemic issues leading to the long-term imprisonment of people found unfit to stand trial, have been aired in the Victorian Ombudsman’s latest report.

The findings echo the experience of our lawyers across Victoria Legal Aid’s practice.

‘As more of our criminal law clients identify as having a disability, this report clearly identifies the need for therapeutic responses and increased community support, to stop people with disability who don’t belong in prison spending significant time there because of system and service failures,' said Dan Nicholson, Executive Director of Criminal Law.

The Ombudsman Deborah Glass, tabled her Investigation into the imprisonment of a woman found unfit to stand trial in the Victorian Parliament, describing what happened to our client, ‘Rebecca’ as ‘the saddest case I have investigated in my time as Ombudsman’.

Rebecca is 39 and has a significant developmental disorder. Despite being found unfit to stand trial she spent 18 months imprisoned at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre and was placed in solitary confinement for most of that time.

The report shows that Rebecca had cycled between prison and homelessness five times in nine months, including for breaching an intervention order her parents had taken out because they couldn’t cope with her behaviours at home. Despite this obvious crisis, there was no effective intervention by services or agencies, because she didn’t meet the assessment criteria of local mental health and disability services and there was nowhere for her to live.

‘Rebecca’s case shows how a lack of housing and services in the community for people with mental illness and disability, as well as blurred lines of government responsibility are having severe consequences for vulnerable people. We are relying on our criminal justice system and our prisons to respond to mental health and disability,’ said Rowan McRae, Executive Director of Civil Justice, Access and Equity. ‘The Ombudsman recognised that Rebecca remained in prison simply because there was nowhere else for her to go’.  

The report considered the potential for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) to fill some of the gaps in disability accommodation and services.‘Unfortunately, what we are currently seeing is that for vulnerable clients like Rebecca, the NDIS is creating more gaps than it is filling. We are again reminded of the need for a framework of NDIS service provision and accountability that makes sure people are getting the supports and services they need, and an established process when supports fail,' said Ms McRae.

Ms Glass found Rebecca’s treatment breached Victoria’s human rights laws and international standards on the rights of people with disabilities. We support her formal recommendation for investment in secure alternatives to prison, for people found unfit to stand trial. In addition, we reiterate the need for services that help people like Rebecca to live well and safely in the community. 

Mr Nicholson said there is a need for a whole of state approach to these problems. ‘We need a single point of contact to build a pathway out of custody and to escalate interventions to end prolonged detention of prisoners with disability and mental health issues.’

More Information:

Read the Victorian Ombudsman's report.

Read about how NDIS market failure is affecting our clients.

Was this helpful?