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

Ch 3. Legal issues

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This study has raised a number of legal issues experienced by people with a mental illness. These include legal issues that relate specifically to their experience of mental illness and subsequent incapacity. For example, people with more severe and persistent mental illnesses who have been hospitalised may experience legal issues relating to the Mental Health Act 1990 (NSW), and mental health care. They may also experience legal issues relating to guardianship and financial management.

As many people with a mental illness tend to be financially disadvantaged, they tend to face legal issues relating to this disadvantage. For example, legal issues relating to social security and housing reflect the fact that many of them receive government benefits and live in public housing. The legal issues arising in these areas also reflect the difficulties they can experience, in complying with certain administrative and behavioural requirements set out by Centrelink and DOH. In addition, they may also experience consumer issues such as credit and debt problems (such as mobile phone and other contractual debt), which are a further reflection of the fact that they are likely to be financially disadvantaged. Consumer issues can arise for people with a mental illness as a result of being particularly unwell when they enter into contracts or make purchases. They, particularly young people, are also vulnerable to receiving fines.

Another category of legal need that can lead to financial disadvantage for people with a mental illness is disability discrimination. They may face discrimination on the basis of psychiatric disability, particularly in the area of employment. They can experience discrimination in the areas of education, housing and the provision of goods and services. The impact that occupational health and safety has had on decisions by employers and education and housing providers not to provide services to people with a mental illness was also discussed.

Another area of legal need raised both in the literature and by participants and stakeholders interviewed for this study was the high rate of violence committed against people with a mental illness. They are vulnerable to sexual assault, general abuse and violence, and domestic violence, as children and adults. In addition, they are vulnerable to abuse while homeless, living in boarding house accommodation, and in psychiatric institutions. Women with mental illness were thought to be particularly vulnerable to sexual assault and domestic violence.

The purpose of this chapter has been to look at the types of legal issues that people with a mental illness in NSW may face. They face a range of legal issues that reflect their financial and social disadvantage. If unaddressed, these issues may lead to increased financial and physical vulnerability, which highlight the importance of accessing legal advice. Drawing on this, the next chapter will look at types of legal service provision available to people with a mental illness, and the barriers they face in accessing these services.


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