The Northern Territory’s forensic mental health team is so overstretched that it cannot prepare a report on one defendant’s severe cognitive impairment before the end of May.
Bronson Wurramara is being tried for indecent assault, but on Thursday before the Supreme Court in Darwin his lawyers said that the matter could not proceed as the Department of Health could not prepare his mental health report due to a lack of resources.
A report from Psych Solutions NT indicated that Mr Wurramara had “quite severe cognitive impairment”, the court heard, which meant that the government mental health report was “quite important”, Justice Judith Kelly said.
She condemned the lack of resources in the Forensic Mental Health Unit, saying that it was creating severe problems for the court.
“It seems to me that the relevant people are doing their best under extremely trying circumstances and have a lack of resources which is creating real problems for the court,” she said.
She read onto the record the response from the Department of Health, which said: “[The] forensic mental health team is unable to provide this report by the time specified in the order or, in fact, for some time.”
It cited several reasons for this, including “the significant number of forensic mental health patients being managed through attendances at Darwin Correctional Centre”; the number of people being managed in the community on non-custodial supervision orders; having to provide additional resources to Alice Springs, carrying out urgent reviews of at-risk people; and managing court reports.
The forensic mental health team would not be able to assess Mr Wurramara for more than five months, on 25 May, it said.
Not an isolated case
Justice Kelly made it known for the record that this was not the first time in the NT that someone was forced to wait for a report.
Fellow NT Justice Graham Hiley had also had to adjourn two Alice Springs matters because reports were not available.
“Both of those matters were at the stage where the person was ready to transition to a non-custodial supervision order; and in one of them, they don’t even know when the report will be available,” Justice Kelly said.
“I’m also told the Chief Justice has had difficulties with this sort of matter.
“I want to place it on the record that the lack of resources provided to the forensic mental health services is creating a severe problem for the court; and, obviously, for those people whose matters need to be dealt with.”
Mr Wurramara’s case was adjourned until February 7.
Calls for improved resourcing
The Criminal Lawyers Association of the NT said they had found more and more frequently that cases that required reports from the Health or Corrections departments were facing ongoing and lengthier adjournments.
“This is particularly concerning given that the persons requiring assistance are ordinarily remanded in custody, vulnerable and suffering from serious mental health issues,” president Marty Aust said.
“There is a very real concern that the medical needs of these persons are not adequately addressed in a custodial setting.”
He said there was an even greater concern that there were so few therapeutic facilities and such little infrastructure to support those people in the community.
He called on the Government to invest more resources in the departments and in community-based facilities.
“It is a matter that should also be considered by the Attorney-General, as the cost of inaction is to condone the ongoing incarceration of mentally unwell people who may otherwise be able to be at liberty on a supervised conditional order with access to treatment,” Mr Aust said.
The Attorney General and Minister for Health, Natasha Fyles, said in a statement that she cannot comment on the specifics of any matter currently before the courts, but the Northern Territory Government is aware of the concerns and is working to move the Territory forward on the issue.
“We are ensuring there is continuous improvement in our management and treatment of persons with mental illness, cognitive disabilities and mental impairment, without compromising community safety or the rights of victims,” the statement read.
“This year, the Northern Territory Government agreed to adopt the National Statement of Principles Relating to Persons Unfit to Plead or Found Not Guilty by Reason of Cognitive or Mental Health Impairment (‘National Principles’).
“As Attorney-General and Minister for Health, I have my departments working together to deliver best practice policies and treatment in line with the National Principles.
“Significant work is already underway to assess current resources, future resourcing needs and potential statutory and other reforms that may be required to implement the National Principles.
“This also includes looking at important recommendations made in 2016 reports by a Senate Committee and by the Northern Territory’s Law Reform Committee.”