Decision-making capacity and the Victorian Mental Health Tribunal

Christopher Maylea, Christopher James Ryan


The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) has led to a re-thinking of traditional mental health law around the world. Since Australia’s ratification of the CRPD, all but one of its eight jurisdictions have introduced reforms to mental health legislation. These are aimed, in part, towards compliance with the Conventions articles. This paper examines the meaning and operation of the reforms introduced in Australia’s second most populous state – Victoria.

We first describe the criteria for involuntary treatment set out in the new Mental Health Act 2014 (Vic) (Austl.) (the Act). We then argue that when making an order for Involuntary Treatment, the Victorian Mental Health Tribunal (the Tribunal) is obliged to carefully consider a person’s decision-making capacity as part of ensuring that treatment is provided in the least restrictive way, and to only authorise the involuntary treatment over a person’s competent objection in very limited circumstances.

Having established the way in which the Act should operate, we then present two empirical studies which analyse the decisions of the Statements of Reasons of the Tribunal to gain some appreciation of how the Act is working. These indicate that seldom does the Tribunal consider the decision-making capacity of people brought before it, and that, even when this is considered, the relevant information is not being used protectively so as to uphold a right to competently refuse treatment. Instead, the Tribunal uses the presence or absence of decision-making capacity, insight or poor judgement, to determine if a person is mentally ill or if treatment is required to prevent serious harm. We conclude that the Tribunal’s practice is inconsistent with the principles of the Act and consequently the intention of Parliament.

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