Strong evidence has emerged in Queensland that a provision under the Mental Health Act to enable police to intervene in cases of extreme mental distress is being seriously abused. Matt Wordsworth examines how innocent people are suffering because of fundamental flaws in the law.
Imagine police arriving at your door armed with a document ordering you to undergo a psychiatric assessment.
You may not know who asked for the order or why it was deemed necessary – only that it is involuntary.
They’re called Justices Examination Orders (JEOs), and in Queensland all that is needed to get one is the signature of a JP.
‘It’s distressing’: One man’s story
One Brisbane man, who wishes to remain anonymous, experienced it first-hand when he arrived home after playing cricket with a group of friends.
“I just arrived home and as I parked my car just in my driveway my neighbour from across the road spoke with me, our children play together so we’re quite well known to each other, and he had advised me that police had arrived,” he said.
The neighbour informed him officers had been and gone three times in three days, so he telephoned the police.
“I was advised that there was a Justices Examination Order out for me,” he said.
“So I asked what it was and they explained it to me and advised me that the best course of action was to contact my local hospital and surrender myself the next day where I would be detained and questioned.
“So the next morning I attended the local hospital, surrendered myself, was detained for approximately an hour and a half – so the whole process is probably a two-and-a-half-hour process – and at the end of the clinical nurse interviewing me she advised me the next step is usually to speak to a psychologist and have them interview me.
“However, she didn’t believe it was necessary and I was released.”
He was left frustrated and bewildered.
We certainly have isolated incidents of misuse. Dr Bill Kingswell, Director of Mental Health, Queensland
“I mean the last thing you want is police visiting your house on a regular basis and your neighbours being aware of that – and (it’s) a bit distressing.”
The father-of-three was going through a bitter divorce and custody dispute, and later discovered his ex-wife took out the order.
Dramatic rise in use of JEOs raises concerns
Queensland Health figures reveal there has been a 41 per cent rise in the number of JEOs issued in the past decade – a concern for the Director of Mental Health for Queensland, Dr Bill Kingswell.
He says JEOs were initially designed to be used by people in desperate circumstances dealing with a friend or relative who was seriously mentally ill.
I think 1,039 JEOs in a year is too many and I think it’s certainly too many when 60-odd per cent of them are false positives.Dr Bill Kingswell
“I think we’ve just made it possibly a little bit too loose in how they can be applied and so too many people are being captured by them,” Dr Kingswell said.
“Of course we get quite a lot complaints through the office by people who’ve had these orders taken out against them.”
He was also concerned that in the majority of cases no action was taken against the person who was the subject of the JEO because they didn’t meet the criteria for further action.
“I think we’ve got a problem,” he said.
“I think 1,039 JEOs in a year is too many and I think it’s certainly too many when 60-odd per cent of them are false positives.”
Civil liberties open to abuse by the ‘malicious’
The Queensland Council for Civil Liberties is worried about vexatious use of JEOs, such as in family-law disputes.
Spokesman Michael Cope said they should only be issued with the oversight of a magistrate.
“Our view is you would solve most of these problems if you restricted these applications to: (a) being made before a magistrate; and (b) being made by somebody who is also qualified to make the assessment whether the application is necessary in the first place, like a police officer, a doctor, a social worker, somebody, not just the next door neighbour or a disgruntled spouse,” he said.
In Queensland a magistrate or a JP can sign off on the order but Dr Kingswell said that in 95 per cent of cases it’s a JP.
He concedes some people are seeking out JEOs for malicious reasons.
“I think most of them will be well-meaning, even if at times misguided, but we certainly have isolated incidents of misuse,” Dr Kingswell said.
He said Queensland Health is currently reviewing the entire Mental Health Act, so reform is probably on the way.
“JEOs are absolutely in scope,” he said.
“We’re aware it’s a problem, the community is aware it’s a problem.
“I think it’s a done deal but of course the Act is a matter for the minister and cabinet in the end.”
This article first appeared on ABC Online on 8 November, 2013.