Queensland Mental Health Court
The purpose of the Queensland Mental Health Court, established under the Mental Health Act 2000, is to determine the mental state of individuals who have been charged with criminal offences. It also hears appeals from the Mental Health Review Tribunal and investigates the legality of patients’ detention in mental health facilities. This article focuses on the operations of the Queensland Mental Health Court.
What is the Queensland Mental Health Court?
The Mental Health Court comprises a Supreme Court judge and two psychiatrists who provide advice to the judges on medical and psychiatric matters. Court proceedings are typically open to the public, except when the individual involved is under 18 years old or when the court orders otherwise.
Mental Health Review Tribunal (MHRT) appeals are not open to the public, unless the court allows a non-involved individual to be present.
The questions the Mental Health Court considers include the following:
- Did the accused have a mental illness or intellectual disability at the time of the alleged offence?
- Is the accused unfit to stand trial? If so, is the unfitness permanent or temporary?
- If the charge is murder, did the accused have reduced responsibility at the time of the offence?
Defence of mental impairment
The Criminal Code 1899 provides that an individual is not criminally liable for an offence if they had a mental disease or infirmity at the time of the offence. For this defence to be available, the accused must have been unable to comprehend their actions, know that their actions were wrong, or control their behaviour.
In determining whether an individual has a defence of mental impairment, the court will examine various materials, such as police and expert reports, statements from psychiatrists, victim statements, submissions from the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Director of Mental Health, and the legal representatives of the accused person. The court can also order a psychiatric or medical examination of the individual.
Diminished responsibility in murder cases
Under section 304A of the Criminal Code 1899 a charge of murder can be reduced to manslaughter in Queensland on the basis of diminished responsibility. This refers to a substantially reduced capacity to understand what they were doing, control their actions, or comprehend that they should not have committed the act or omission. When an individual’s capacities are significantly impaired, they are therefore less culpable for their actions.
Unfitness for trial
One of the functions of the Mental Health Court is assessing the fitness for trial of accused persons. A person will be found to be unfit for trial if they are unable to:
- comprehend the meaning of pleading guilty or not guilty;
- understand the trial proceedings;
- instruct their legal representatives; or
- endure their trial without a significant deterioration of their mental state.
An individual may be unfit for trial either temporarily or permanently.
When a person is unfit for trial, proceedings cannot continue unless or until the person becomes fit for trial. In this situation, the person must be dealt with outside of the criminal justice system. In this situation, the court may make a forensic order, a treatment support order, or it may make no order.
A person who has been found to be unfit for trial will have their fitness for trial regularly reviewed by the Mental Health Review Tribunal. If they become fit for trial, the criminal proceedings will continue. However, if they remain unfit for trial for three years (or seven years if the charge carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment), the proceedings will be discontinued.
If a person is found to be fit for trial, the criminal case proceeds as usual.
If the Mental Health Court determines that an accused person is unfit for trial, and it considers that the person poses a risk of serious harm to other persons or property, it must make a forensic order. A forensic order allows for care or treatment to be provided to the person involuntarily (without a requirement that they consent) and to the extent ordered by the court.
A forensic order may require a person to be detained in a mental health facility for treatment.
Treatment support orders
If the Mental Health Court determines that a forensic order is not needed to protect the community, it may make a treatment support order. A treatment support order also authorises the involuntary treatment for the person and, if necessary, their detention in a mental health facility. However, while a forensic order requires the court to authorise increases and decreases to the person’s treatment, a treatment support order allows for these decisions to be made by the person’s authorised doctor.
If a confidentiality order is granted, the alleged offender is prevented from accessing the information that has been provided to the court. However, their legal representatives will have access to the information. A confidentiality order is issued only if the court determines that disclosing the information would seriously harm the alleged offender’s health or jeopardize someone else’s safety. Disclosing information that is subject to a confidentiality order without a reasonable excuse may result in a fine.
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