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On the edge of justice: the legal needs of people with a mental illness  ( 2006 )  Cite this report

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The objects of the Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales (the Foundation) are to contribute to the development of a fair and equitable justice system which addresses the legal needs of the community, and to improve access to justice by the community (in particular, by economically and socially disadvantaged people).1

In 2002 the Foundation commenced the Access to Justice and Legal Needs research program. The main purpose of the program is to provide a rigorous and sustained assessment of the legal and access to justice needs of the community, especially disadvantaged people, which will assist government, community and other organisations develop policy and plan service delivery. The research is a challenging program involving an interconnected set of projects employing a range of qualitative and quantitative methodologies.

An important feature of the program is the examination of the particular access to justice and legal needs of selected disadvantaged demographic groups. This report is a qualitative study examining the legal needs of people with a mental illness. Other groups examined or to be examined as part of the program include older people, homeless people and prisoners and those recently released from prison. These groups have been chosen principally because less is available in the literature concerning their legal needs, but also because less comprehensive data concerning their needs is likely to be obtained through the other components of the research program.

People with a mental illness are amongst the most disadvantaged in our society. A surprisingly large number of Australians experience mental illness, and this is often associated with other social and economic disadvantage. As a result of their illness and related disadvantage, our research suggests that people with a mental illness are vulnerable to particular legal issues, and come up against particular barriers that limit their ability to deal with these issues. The combination of poor financial circumstances, a perceived lack of credibility and cognitive and communication impairment pose major challenges for people with a mental illness seeking to participate in legal processes. People with a mental illness are likely to experience complex and multiple legal and other issues, which they are not always well placed to address, and which are deserving of particular attention from both research and service provision.

This report into the legal needs of people with a mental illness is based on a review of existing literature and consultations with legal and non-legal service providers, academics, and the people themselves. It seeks to canvass many of the particular issues relevant to this group in NSW. While the report ‘stands on its own’, it is also important to consider this report in the context of the relevant data on the legal needs and barriers experienced by homeless people and prisoners, as well as the data contained in other components of the Access to Justice and Legal Needs program. The following reports in particular should be considered:

  • Stage 1: Public Consultations (August 2003)
  • Stage 2: Quantitative Legal Needs Survey, Bega Valley (Pilot) (November 2003)
  • Data Digest (February 2004)
  • The Legal Needs of Older People in NSW (December 2004)
  • No Home, No Justice? The Legal Needs of Homeless People in NSW (July 2005)
  • Justice Made to Measure: NSW Legal Needs Survey in Disadvantaged Areas (March 2006).

Geoff Mulherin
Law and Justice Foundation of NSW
April 2006


Karras, M, McCarron, E, Gray, A & Ardasinski, S 2006, On the edge of justice: the legal needs of people with a mental illness in NSW, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney