Justice Action made a submission on 06/10/2017 to the Review of the Mental Health Review Tribunal in respect of forensic patients. The Hon Anthony Whealy QC is conducting the Review and will report to the Minister in December. Click here to access a PDF copy of our submission.
Basis of the Whealy Inquiry
Emotive, exaggerated news has no place dictating legislation. And yet, that is precisely the kind of irresponsible, ‘if-it-bleeds-it-leads’ reporting which has ultimately prompted a review of the NSW Mental Health Review Tribunal. Seizing and sensationalising a story about the mother of a victim, the media created a storm the Mental Health Minister Tanya Davies was quick to attempt to appease with the Whealy Inquiry. The findings and recommendations of this Inquiry have become the basis of the proposed Mental Health and Cognitive Impairment Forensic Provisions Bill. Because it is based on an Inquiry whose purpose was to alleviate grossly misdirected public fear and outrage, the proposed Bill does not merely fail to scratch the surface of the grave shortcomings in mental health legislation, it circumvents the true issues entirely.
An article published in the Daily Telegraph on the 1st April, 2017, was a significant propellant for the public outcry that sparked the Whealy Inquiry. This article detailed the story of the mother of a woman who, tragically, was killed by her partner in July 2012. The perpetrator was found not guilty of murder for mental health reasons in 2015, and thus became a forensic patient. It was a brutal crime, and the mother’s pain and loss should by no means be marginalised. Yet in the interest of creating a story with a sympathetic victim and a clear, de-humanised villain who is easy to hate and fear, the article’s focus lands not on the Mental Health Tribunal but the “killers” and “rapists” which, it implies, the Tribunal is putting back on the streets. These “monsters” are the villains of the story, not the insensitive and inefficient bureaucratic system which notified the victim’s mother of upcoming tribunal hearings every six months. The system kept revictimising her.
“Very early on when we started having the tribunal hearings we learnt that they weren’t about my daughter. They’re all about her killer and what he wants. We’re not allowed to say anything,” says ‘Louise’ (not her real name), the victim’s mother. Louise’s anger and frustration is understandable, yet the article directs it towards the easy target; the mentally ill. The focus of tribunal hearings is not on the victim, it is on the care, treatment and control of forensic patients. It would be inappropriate and counter-productive for these hearings to centre around the victim, as Louise feels they should. Yet the Whealy Inquiry was designed to alleviate these kinds of fears. Sadly, these are fears which are more palatable to address than the real problems.
It is very easy to point the finger at the deranged monsters which an insensitive Tribunal is putting back into the community, despite the protests of ignored and marginalised victims and their families. It is a good story to tell, it is easy for the public to become angry and fearful over it, and calling for a review that will place the focus on victims is a beneficial announcement for a politician to make. Yet blaming the mentally ill, rather than the endemic issues within the culture of the NSW Mental Health System, will never result in any meaningful change that will benefit not just forensic patients but victims as well.
The Whealy Inquiry was sparked by the outrage which followed a mother’s pain and frustration over a tragic crime which had occurred many years earlier. Yet the Inquiry fails to address a death which was directly caused by the callous disregard of the NSW Mental Health System for the patients in its care. Miriam Merton died on 3rd June 2014 from horrific injuries sustained during her time in seclusion (the confinement of a patient in a room from which free exit is prevented). Whilst she was in the care of the Mental Health Unit of Lismore Base Hospital, Ms Merton fell over more than 20 times, battered her head against various surfaces, and was left to wonder the corridors of the Lismore facility, naked, splattered with blood and faeces, and totally neglected. Her death was a tragedy, and it was avoidable, and it was a direct result of the systemic failings of the NSW Mental Health System. Ms Merton’s death should not be overshadowed by moral panics incited by the media. It should call attention to the entrenched issues which must be the focus of the Mental Health and Cognitive Impairment Forensic Provisions Bill if it is to enact meaningful change, prevent further deaths, improve conditions for patients and facilitate their recovery and rehabilitation.