Mental health institute to slash court services

VICTORIA'S forensic mental health institute will suspend assessments of people in court and close 16 hospital beds for the criminally insane as it grapples with budget cuts.

The Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health, known as Forensicare, said it had been forced to slash services as a result of the Commonwealth's $107 million cuts to Victoria's health system.

Forensicare has suspended its court liaison services until June 30, which could lead to more mentally ill offenders being sent to prison and costly delays in the Magistrates Court.

Cases could be adjourned while mentally ill offenders navigate overstretched mainstream mental health services in the hope of being assessed.

Forensicare chief executive Tom Dalton said the cuts, which were announced in the middle of a budget cycle, had placed an ''enormous strain'' on the institute.

''Forensicare is the sole provider of these services in Victoria and these are not decisions that our council has taken lightly. At the forefront of Forensicare's function is that of community safety.''

The institute will gradually close 16 of 116 beds at the Thomas Embling Hospital in Fairfield, which treats mentally ill people in the criminal justice system who need acute psychiatric care and treatment, as well as those who have been found not guilty of crimes due to mental impairment.

''The ultimate loss of beds will require close planning, as it comes at a time when there is unprecedented growth in demand for inpatient admissions from the criminal justice system,'' Mr Dalton said.

Chief Magistrate Peter Lauritsen said Forensicare's court liaison service helped magistrates deal with mentally ill offenders. ''We are currently working with Forensicare to examine options for dealing with this situation until the service is able to resume,'' he said.

The hospital's Jardine unit, where involuntary residents prepare for their release and a double homicide occurred in 2009, is set to be converted into a less secure ''intensive community transitional support'' unit for voluntary patients.

In order to cut costs, there will also be a reduction in training opportunities for staff, who work with some of the state's most dangerous patients. There have been three deaths at the high-security Thomas Embling Hospital in just over three years. In 2009, two men were stabbed to death in the Jardine unit, and in December a patient died after he was strangled.

The chair of the faculty of forensic psychiatry at the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, Dr Ness McVie, said reducing secure beds could put the community at risk because more mentally ill offenders would be sent to jail without treatment.

''If people are released from jail without treatment and their illness continues, they are at the same risk of reoffending. People who go through the mental health system instead of jail have a much lower rate of recidivism,'' she said.

The director of Monash University's Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science, James Ogloff, said the cuts were disheartening and would lead to costly delays in court.

''Mentally ill offenders before court will not receive adequate attention and care. If they are not remanded and expected to go to mental health services for assessment, they pose a possible risk to themselves or others in the community,'' he said.

A spokesman for state Mental Health Minister Mary Wooldridge said Forensicare's move was a result of the federal government's cuts. But a spokesman for federal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek said the Victorian government was responsible for any cuts to the state's health system.

This story Mental health institute to slash court services first appeared on The Age.