Court-ordered mental health reports leave psychiatrists overstretched

Health authorities took this matter to Wellington High Court on Monday

Court-ordered mental health reports leave psychiatrists overstretched

Court-ordered psychiatric reports are taking up a chunk of the few available psychiatrists’ time and effort that could have otherwise gone to mental health patients in the hospital, Stuff reported.

This was brought to light after Te Whatu Ora - Health New Zealand rejected a court order to provide a psychiatric report for a 21-year-old Taranaki man awaiting trial. This left the man with no choice but to seek a private report, which has only resulted in more delays in his case.

Psychiatrists as a scarce resource are becoming increasingly common across the country, but lawyer Paul White for the Te Whatu Ora said it is most felt in places like Waikato. This has resulted in longer wait times for mental health assessments on top of the pandemic-related delays in court.

Psychiatric reports inform the court if a person is mentally fit to stand trial, was insane at the time of the alleged offending, and the type and length of sentence that can be imposed. However, each report for the court can take up to 20 hours to complete, White said, which leaves few psychiatrists to hospital patients who need them the most.

According to Stuff, as few as one psychiatrist can be responsible for the whole of New Plymouth on several occasions. In spite of an allotted budget for seven personnel, there are currently four on duty, but one of them is often preoccupied with fulfilling other roles as well.

Speaking on behalf of the attorney-general, crown lawyer Kim Laurenson also confirmed that the worldwide shortage of psychiatrists had nothing to do with a lack of funding.

This has led Te Whatu Ora to bring this matter to the High Court in Wellington, claiming that it is not answerable to court orders for the report and that courts should put an end to calling for reports unnecessarily.

“The time devoted to reports for justice purposes meant someone who needed care was missing out,” senior psychiatrist Dr. Peter Dean said in a statement for this week’s court case.

Stuff reported Dean’s suggestion of having a forensic nurse at the court evaluate whether or not a psychiatric report was necessary and that private practitioners could be tapped to prepare the reports instead of public ones.

If Dean’s suggestion is taken into consideration, lawyer Matthew Smith added that health authorities should also be more involved in the solution: “If a private psychiatrist could do reports then the health authorities should arrange it.”

The Criminal Bar Association, New Zealand Law Society and New Zealand Bar Association were allowed to make submissions in the case.

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