Legal loophole allowed mental health patient to murder

Last updated 05:00 04/07/2014

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The Waikato District Health Board has confirmed that there is a loophole in legislation which causes delays in restraining volatile mental health patients.

A senior DHB official made the admission yesterday at the coroner's inquest into Diane Elizabeth White's murder.

White was murdered by Christine Morris, who was being treated for a mental illness at the DHB's Henry Bennett Centre (HBC) in Hamilton.

On January 19, 2010, Morris, who is profoundly deaf, walked past her carers and climbed the fence at the mental health unit, and then went on to bludgeon her neighbour White to death with a hammer, despite minutes earlier having threatened to kill White.

Morris is now serving a life sentence for murder, with a minimum non-parole period of 10 years.

The DHB's director of clinical services for mental health and addiction services, Dr Rees Tapsell, who took over the role after White's murder, confirmed the loophole to the inquest yesterday.

Coroner Peter Ryan is focusing on Morris' care and the police response.

Tapsell said he only discovered the loophole while sitting in this week's inquest. "There does appear to be a loophole in the Mental Health Act and particularly in the way it is possible to change the status of a patient [from voluntary to involuntary]."

He said that currently made it "particularly difficult in urgent situations", like with Morris.

"There's a loophole in terms of the speed in which that can be done. So my understanding of it now is that it can only be done by the person responsible [for the patient]."

In Morris' case, the HBC staff member holding a meeting with Morris and several other staff - which Morris left to later kill White - did not have the qualifications to immediately change her patient status. Tapsell said the DHB had since reviewed and strengthened the department's policies and procedures, but couldn't fix the legal loophole.

Changes included closer supervision of high-risk patients, a completely new department management team, rearrangement of staff and beds in Wards 34 and 35 and the stationing of a psychiatrist on each ward.

Tapsell assured Philip Crayton, lawyer for NZ Police, that if a situation like Morris' occurred again the outcome would be different as the patient would be subject to a higher level of observation and supervision.

But Coroner Ryan said simple supervision of a patient in an outside area by the fence "may not solve the problem". Tapsell then labelled the fence jumping topic as a "red herring".

" . . . it's not big enough or robust enough to be a deterrent to patients to leave the unit."

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Tapsell said its other units had much higher and more robust fences, but Ward 34 was classified as an open ward" so patients would be monitored "by staff and not the wall".

Coroner Ryan asked Tapsell if he was comfortable with that and he replied "yes", but Coroner Ryan insisted that "the best line of defence should be a physical barrier". "I accept that that is a decision that you will have to make, Your Honour," Tapsell said.

- Waikato Times

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