Proctor : June 2017
11 PROCTOR | June 2017 Advocacy Putting justice into perspective A key component of Queensland Law Society’s advocacy role is to engage and educate the community on the way our justice system operates, as Tony Keim explains. The workings of Queensland’s Mental Health Court were thrust into the public spotlight last month with the release of its findings for a North Queensland mother charged with murdering eight children under 15. The nation reeled in horror when news reports began filtering through that Cairns mother Raina Thaiday, 40, had slain her seven children and a niece at the family’s Murray Street home on 19 December 2014. Police revealed that all eight children – aged between 27 months and 14 – were found stabbed to death and their bodies lay littered about the small suburban home. While widespread community emotions, concern and disbelief ran high, the complexity of the mother’s inexplicable behaviour was compounded by the fact the then-37-year-old had used the murder weapon to inflict injuries on herself, with paramedics finding her at the property with 35 separate knife wounds. For reasons that became obvious only last month, facts about the story remained unknown for almost 21⁄2 years because of an application by Ms Thaiday’s lawyers to Queensland’s Mental Health Court for a defence on the grounds of insanity. Decisions by the Mental Health Court are rarely reported by the media. More often than not it is as a result of the confidential processes of the court, with matters not publicly detailed on law lists under an offender’s name. It is also due to the day-to-day court reporting pressures in an environment where print and broadcast news organisations are staffing their court rounds with junior reporters who have limited contact networks or resources. In recent years some high-profile Mental Health Court cases have slipped past media organisations – with the last major case to attract national coverage occurring almost six years ago. Again, the confidential workings of the court and prohibitive legislation meant the media could only report basic facts, such as: “A 15-year-old boy has been found mentally unfit to stand trial after he fatally stabbed a 12-year-old schoolmate in the toilets of a Brisbane school in 2010.” At the time of that killing on 15 February that year, all of the details of the attack, including the naming of the victim and commentary about the personality traits of the accused perpetrator, made national headlines and led evening news bulletins for almost a week. However, when Justice Ann Lyons released her findings after a Mental Health Court hearing, all of those details were reduced to a sanitised document, in which the parties’ identities were anonymised, touching briefly on the facts of the case and focusing on the state of mind of the assailant and his fitness to stand trial. The release of Justice Lyons’ findings in late October 2011 resulted in an outcry as the public could not comprehend why the juvenile offender would not stand trial and was to be sent to a mental health facility and not a detention centre. Justice Lyons, in a 25-page decision, found the teenage assailant was clearly of unsound mind at the time of the attack. Since Justice Lyons’ ruling, the Mental Health Court has continued about its business with little fanfare or media attention, until Justice Jean Dalton published her findings in the Thaiday case on 4 May. Queensland Law Society, in particular president Christine Smyth, moved quickly to address the disconnect and confusion Justice Dalton’s reasons were likely to cause the wider community by proactively engaging news media. The motivating features for the strategy, as part of QLS’s continued advocacy role to engage and educate the public, was to explain the complexity of the law in cases such as Ms Thaiday’s, the reasons for the court’s legal obligation, protocols and procedures, and to simplify the legal terminology and features of the case that would ordinarily confound a person without legal training. Fortunately, Justice Dalton’s seven-page ruling made for easy reading – even to the lay person – and explained in simple terms why Ms Thaiday’s “defence of insanity under our (Queensland) criminal law is made out” and as such she “was of unsound mind” and unfit for trial. It was revealed Ms Thaiday had been assessed by five experienced mental health professionals who unanimously agreed the accused murderer was “deprived of the capacity to control herself and the capacity to know that she ought not do the act” of killing the children. “This matter has proceeded as an uncontested matter ... from the three independent psychiatrists and from my two assisting psychiatrists,” Justice Dalton said. “(They found) Ms Thaiday had a mental illness that deprived her of capacity at the time of the killing (and) is entitled to the defence of unsoundness of mind. “I will acknowledge what (one senior psychiatrist) said in his advice to me, that in terms of an illness, this is the worst schizophrenia gets, and, of course, one of the most serious results from such an illness – one of the most serious killings that he is aware of.” As a consequence of the finding, Justice Dalton ordered Ms Thaiday be placed under a forensic order that would result in ongoing care and treatment at the secure Brisbane Park Centre for Mental Health. Understandably all sectors of the media – print, broadcast and online – reported the findings throughout Australia and, as a result, QLS president Christine Smyth responded by holding a press conference and a series of interviews to explain Justice Dalton’s decision. The QLS response was subsequently praised by the majority of reporters who interviewed Ms Smyth. Of particular note were comments of how, until this case, the legal profession had previously been reluctant to discuss what had traditionally been seen as a taboo topic. Ms Smyth briefed reporters in detail about how the court worked, helped them to understand the reasons behind the decision and orders – in particular why the court’s ruling was final (because the 28 days within which to appeal had expired) and why Ms Thaiday would be held and treated in a secure mental health facility until deemed – if ever – fit for release. She also explained that, should Ms Thaiday ever be released, she would most likely be heavily supervised, monitored and subject to ongoing treatment. While some sections of the community did voice their anger over Ms Thaiday’s avoidance of the criminal law courts, the QLS participation in explaining the process gave more answers to a broad public audience than ever before. Tony Keim is Queensland Law Society media manager.