Our senior lawyer Eleanore Fritze is about to embark on an overseas study tour, where she will be exploring innovative legal services to assist people with disabilities and mental illness who are detained in closed environments.
She has been awarded a Jack Brockhoff Foundation Churchill Fellowship and will be researching legal and policy responses in New York, Washington DC, England and Budapest.
The impact of disability detention
Eleanore says people with cognitive impairments or mental illness can be detained indefinitely and treated without their consent even if they have committed no offence.
‘This can be in a high secure forensic facility – think high walls, razor wire, airlocked entries and biometric security. They may be detained alongside sentenced prisoners and those who have committed violent acts. They may also be detained in psychiatric units at hospitals or group homes in the community.’
‘People with cognitive impairments or mental illness who have been held in detention for lengthy periods risk becoming institutionalised, and desensitised to the significant restrictions placed on their liberty and autonomy. The freedoms that we take for granted – choosing where to live and with whom, family contact, decisions about treatment, and basic privacy – are all severely curtailed.
‘They may not realise that there is a legal dimension to their situation, or may not have the mental capacity to get help or realise they have legal options that they can take up. Some have just given up.’
Learning from overseas experiences
Eleanore says legal help is critical in ensuring that these far-reaching decisions around detention and compulsory treatment apply the law correctly, are based on evidence, and are the least restrictive possible in the circumstances.
‘It’s timely to get an overview of how legal services similar to our own operate, as currently the opportunities presented by the new Mental Health Act 2014 here in Victoria are still being explored,’ Eleanore says. She expects that what she learns will bring fresh insights and new ways of thinking which will be valuable for our own Mental Health and Disability Advocacy program.
‘It will be especially interesting to see the different impact of services which are focused on providing smaller amounts of legal help to large numbers of individuals, compared to those which concentrate on just a few high intensity test cases, which might benefit many people by clarifying the law.’
Eleanore, who has worked at Victoria Legal Aid since she commenced her articles in 2006, has always been interested in mental health and disability and their intersection with the justice system.
She has worked as a personal care attendant for people with disabilities, has postgraduate qualifications in disability studies, and was the inaugural duty lawyer at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court Assessment and Referral Court List, which employs a tailored, therapeutic approach to people with disabilities in the criminal justice system.
Follow Eleanore's study tour
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Reviewed 25 January 2022