Ministry of Health officials did not attend a victims’ workshop at a time when the Government plans to change victim notification laws in cases where an offender has been found not guilty by insanity.

On Monday, the Ministry of Justice and the Government’s Chief Victims Advisor Kim McGregor ran a workshop for victims as part of wider efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system.

About 160 people attended the two-day summit, including members of the judiciary, Corrections, the Parole Board, as well as victims advocates and victims.

No one was present from the Ministry of Health, despite McGregor extending the invitation. But Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said the ministry did not receive the invitation.

A major part of the summit was aimed at improving the way the system treats victims, including the way they are notified and included in the process in a respectful way.

When a person is found not guilty due to insanity, or unfit to plead or stand trial due to mental health and/or cognitive issues, their treatment is governed by mental health legislation, and they are often admitted to a form of mental health facility, or ordered to receive care as an inpatient or in the community.

Communication with the victim, including notifications of developments in the patient’s case are handled by the Ministry of Health, through the Office of the Director of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Graeme Moyle, victim advocate and mental health spokesperson for tough-on-crime lobby group Sensible Sentencing Trust, lost his brother Colin 12 years ago. The man who killed him was found not guilty due to insanity.

“The rights of this group of victims will never improve so long as this culture of contempt and ignorance exists within the Ministry of Health.”

Moyle said the ministry had a duty of care to victims, and he was “outraged” no officials bothered to attend the workshop.

“Their absence from this very important forum demonstrates the contempt in which they hold victims of mentally ill offenders,” he said.

“The rights of this group of victims will never improve so long as this culture of contempt and ignorance exists within the Ministry of Health.”

McGregor said due to scheduling issues she was unable to organise to meet with other ministry officials ahead of Monday’s hui, but would be meeting with a senior official later in March.

“I also have a series of face-to-face meetings planned with other organisations, victim advocates and victims that were unable to attend the workshop in the coming months.”

Her final recommendations to Minister of Justice Andrew Little would be informed by these meetings, as well as discussions from the workshop.

“I am aware of the importance of health agencies to improving justice outcomes for victims,” she said.

Both Little, and Health Minister David Clark, said they would have expected someone from the ministry to attend the meeting.

Clark said he was aware of the issue, and would be seeking an explanation for why no one attended.

Bloomfield said the ministry was disappointed to have missed the workshop, and representatives would have attended if they received the invitation.

“We have arranged to meet with Dr McGregor as soon as possible to discuss the outcomes of the workshop and identify how the Ministry of Health can contribute from here including an opportunity to meet with and hear from victims and families,” he said.

Law change on the cards

The Ministry of Health’s absence comes at a time when the laws that govern the notification system are under review.

Currently, the care of people who have caused harm but are found not fit to plead, or not guilty due to insanity, comes under the governance of the Ministry of Health.

Any notifications to victims of significant developments in the patient’s case is handled by the Ministry of Health.

Moyle said strict privacy laws and a lack of expertise in the area of victim rights, meant victims in these cases often received little information.

Other people who had caused harm, and ended up in a correctional facility, came under the jurisdiction of Corrections, who handled those victim notifications.

“I think victims are entitled to know what happens to that person, even if they go into a mental health facility.”

Moyle said when someone who had caused harm was accommodated in a prison, victims were given more information about developments in the case. They would also be notified when an inmate was on work release, or parole, or their security status.

He advocated for changing the laws to make sure victims were given better information on developments in the case.

One of the many criticisms of the criminal justice system was its fragmented and siloed nature. The splitting of jurisdictions dealing with victim notifications seemed to be another example of this.

But changes to these laws are in the pipeline, with Little saying he thought it was “entirely appropriate” for Corrections or the Ministry of Justice to run all notification procedures, including in cases where people have been found to be insane.

“I think victims are entitled to know what happens to that person, even if they go into a mental health facility.”

Clark agreed laws governing the notification system needed to be reconsidered in the longer term, and said he has had preliminary discussions with Little.

Is the insanity defence fit for purpose?

The New Zealand Law Commission reviewed the insanity defence and some other issues relating to mental impairment and fitness to stand trial in 2010, saying the review was a “long time coming”.

“Some will be disappointed in our recommendation that, despite problems with the insanity defence … we do not find any of the reform options more attractive than the existing law.

“We do not wish to minimise the issues, but we cannot suggest anything better, so we have not recommended reform.”

Earlier this month, the Tasmania Law Reform Institute published an issues paper relating to fitness to stand trial and the defence of insanity.

There are concerns the law does not reflect current understanding of mental health, and the University of Tasmania says principles of fairness and justice dictate that, wherever possible, defendants with cognitive or mental health impairments should be supported to undergo a normal trial.

The institute’s review looks to modernise the laws, and consider initiatives to promote rights for vulnerable defendants, and examine whether courts should be given greater supervisory powers and therapeutic sentencing options.

Institute researcher Rebecca Bradfield said her research found people who were placed on forensic orders were generally subject to longer restrictions on their liberty than they would have been if they had been found guilty and sentenced in the usual way by the court.

While many people who come into contact with Tasmania’s criminal justice system had mental and/or cognitive impairments, only a small number relied on unfitness to stand trial or the defence of insanity, she said.

If a person with a mental illness or a cognitive impairment relied on unfitness to stand trial or the defence of insanity, this could have long-term consequences, particularly if they were placed on a forensic order.

“The institute wishes to learn whether current laws strike the right balance between the need to ensure community safety, equal access to the criminal justice system, and the needs of people with disabilities,” Bradfield said.

Where to get help

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email or online chat

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202 (to talk to a trained counsellor about how you are feeling or to ask any questions)

What’s Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available from 5pm–11pm 7 days a week, including all public holidays.

Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7.

If you are in crisis, call 111, go to your local ED or phone your local mental health crisis team – numbers can be found here.

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