A second case on the interaction of two major Victorian statutes of 2006, the Charter and the Disability Act, is now online. Both involve supervised treatment orders under the latter statute:
193(3) A supervised treatment order must- (a) state that the Authorised Program Officer is responsible for the implementation of the supervised treatment order; (b) require the person to whom the supervised treatment order applies to reside in premises approved by the Authorised Program Officer; (c) refer to the treatment plan which must be attached to the supervised treatment order; (d) specify the period for which the supervised treatment order is to continue in force, being a period not exceeding 1 year.
The first case, MM (Guardianship)  VCAT 1282, blogged about here, involved a narrow and unusual question: whether or not supervised treatment orders should be made in relation to someone who wants to be treated but, due to an intellectual disability, lacks the capacity to fully consent. Disappointingly, VCAT Deputy John Billings opted for a broad reasonable limits analysis – which, of course, the detention regime passed with flying colours – without applying the interpretation mandate to the specific provision in dispute. The new case, LM (Guardianship)  VCAT 2084, looks at a much broader question about the limits of the detention regime and does a better, but still inadequate, job.
As always, the facts are heartbreaking. Following childhood behavioural problems, LM was diagnosed at the age of 13 with a ‘borderline to mild intellectual disability’ and a plethora of mental disorders, as well as non-epileptic seizures. As an adult, she attracted a criminal record, including for threatening a woman and a child in a McDonald’s toilet (in 2004) and, more recently, walking into traffic, carrying a controlled weapon and offensive public behaviour. She is presently on a good behaviour bond. Within various institutions, her behaviour included secreting knives and walking onto roads, both apparently with intent to suicide; aggression and threats towards staff; and repeated seizures. But there have been considerable improvements in her current location. Nevertheless, her current disability service provider considers it necessarty to lock the front door to that institution about 70% of the time (apparently so that she feels safe); to forcefully return her to the premises on a number of occasions when she climbed the back fence and headed for the road; to restrain her during seizures; and to engage the police to return her to the premises. They obtained an interim supervised treatment order to authorise these measures and now seek a non-interim order.
There’s little doubt that LM is unwell and poses some danger to herself. However, for better or for worse, treatment of those problems depends on other regimes, including other provisions of the Disability Act, the Mental Heath Act and the Guardianship and Administration Act. The supervised treatment order regime, the sole regime permitting disability service providers to ‘detain’ anyone, is, by contrast, aimed at protecting others. No-one disputes that LM satisfies the threshold eligibility requirements for STOs: she has an intellectual disability, is in residential care and is being treated. But does she meet the core test of being a risk to others?:
191(6) VCAT can only make a supervised treatment order if VCAT is satisfied that- (a) the person has previously exhibited a pattern of violent or dangerous behaviour causing serious harm to another person or exposing another person to a significant risk of serious harm…
What is ‘serious’ harm? The Disability Act doesn’t define the term, so VCAT Member Julie Grainger looked to definitions in the Cth and ACT Criminal Codes (defining serious harm as either life-threatening or longstanding) and the Migration Act (with a broader definition all sorts of potential hams.) She strangely didn’t consider the definition in in Victoria’s own Crimes Act – probably because it refers to ‘serious injury’, thus avoiding an Austlii search – but it’s not a very helpful definition.
After noting that there’s a much stronger analogy between STOs and criminal punishment, Grainger opted for the Code definition, observing:
This definition is also compatible with, and promotes the human rights of persons with a disability by ensuring that human rights such as the right to recognition and equality before the law (section 8 of the Charter), the right to freedom of movement (section 12 of the Charter), the right to liberty and security of the person (section 21 of the Charter) and the right not to be tried or punished more than once (section 26 of the Charter) are limited only in the most serious of circumstances.
Fair enough. The reasoning here basically equates compatibility with ‘least possible intrusion’, which is fine, although it doesn’t really go beyond the traditional rule that requires strict construction of provisions that limit common law rights. The Charter supports a more nuanced interpretative approach:
21(2) A person must not be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention.
(3) A person must not be deprived of his or her liberty except on grounds, and in accordance with procedures, established by law.
An important precondition for avoiding arbitrariness in detention and for ensuring compliance with lawful requirements is for the provision authorising detention to be as clear and precise as possible. So, it’s vital that any interpretation come up with a definition that is not merely minimalist but also not susceptible to widely inconsistent factual applications.
Grainger’s definition strikes me as fitting that bill, but her application of the test to LM strikes me as very problematic.