On the edge of justice: the legal needs of people with a mental illness ( 2006 ) Cite this report
Ch 4. Barriers to accessing legal assistance
A number of service providers felt that a specialist legal service for people with a mental illness would help address some of the barriers encountered in accessing legal assistance.127 Although there are a few services that do cater to people with a mental illness (such as the Legal Aid MHAS and the Disability Discrimination Legal Centre (DDLC)), while extremely beneficial, these services are limited by their jurisdictional requirements in the advice they can give. The MHAS acts on legal issues arising from the Mental Health Act 1990 (NSW), including compulsory hospitalisation and treatment orders, guardianship, community treatment orders and community counselling orders.128 The DDLC assists in cases of disability discrimination under either the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) or the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW).
Thus, roundtable attendees felt that there are currently gaps in legal service provision to people with a mental illness.129 They felt that there is a role for a specialist mental health legal centre that deals with all areas of law, with the capacity to undertake test case litigation and law reform.130 Another roundtable attendee proposed the establishment of a national system of disability legal services.131
It was suggested that ideally, such a service would employ solicitors that had the communication skills necessary to work with people who have a mental illness. This would allow more time during appointments and more flexibility around the needs of people with a mental illness.132 The service would be aware of the barriers—such as those discussed earlier in this chapter—facing people with a mental illness.
A possible model for this is the Mental Health Legal Centre in Victoria, a specialist legal centre for people with a mental illness that provides legal advice and representation for people who have a legal matter related to their mental illness, as well as a referral service, legal education and telephone advice.133 The centre acts on issues dealt with in NSW by the MHAS and the DDLC, as well as criminal (fitness to plead), family law (child protection in particular, but also resident and contact order arrangements) and debt issues.134
Another example of a specialist legal service for people with a mental illness is the Springfield Advice and Law Centre that operates out of Springfield University Hospital in the United Kingdom. This London-based centre offers independent, free advice, as well as casework and legal representation, to local users of the national mental health system, and operates in regards to hospitalisation, housing, debt and community care matters.135
One case manager interviewed for this study expressed some concern that not all people with a mental illness would access a specialist mental health legal centre, because they do not believe or know that they have a mental illness, or because they are afraid of experiencing the stigma associated with mental illness.136 For this reason, people with a mental illness may be more likely to access more generalist legal service providers, which, as a result, will need to be aware of and have the capacity to assist people with a mental illness.