May 22, 2023 | Katie Wand
It is essential that people living with mental health problems of emotional distress have access to the legal support they need as part of a responsive and integrated system in Victoria.
Our data shows that one in five people served by a Victorian Community Legal Centre last year was living with a mental health issue. Another national survey indicated that among clients who have six or more legal issues, 60% have mental health issues.
The disadvantage and discrimination arising from living with mental health issues can be great. What’s more, people’s interactions with the justice system often worsened, rather than improved their mental health.
The Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System highlighted that good mental health is not just the absence of illness, but involves the ability to fully and effectively participate in society. Despite this, many social services, including legal services, are not accessible to people living with mental illness.
To ensure people living with mental illness are able to able to receive the legal help they require, we must strengthen the link between health, equity and justice in our public systems.
The Victorian community legal sector is at the forefront of delivering integrated legal services and health justice partnerships to the community, in a model that provides early intervention and coordinated support for people with mental health needs.
In our 2023/4 Victorian budget submission, we urge the Victorian Government to provide funding for Community Legal Centres to integrate legal assistance in the roll out of Victoria’s 60 Local Adult and Older Adult Mental Health and Wellbeing Services.
There is clearly a strong case for embedding an integrated legal practice model across Victoria, and many of Victoria’s Community Legal Centres already work with health services, hospitals and community agencies as part of health justice partnerships. While the evidence of their success is overwhelming and these initiatives are welcome, a more systematic and funded approach to integrated practice is needed across Victoria, particularly in the mental health space.
The reforms flowing from the Royal Commission provide an important opportunity to increase access to timely place-based legal assistance and holistic support to people living with mental health problems of emotional distress. Community Legal Centres are the appropriate vehicle for implementing the changes needed to widen access and improve heath and wellbeing outcomes for Victorians, and we hope that this is reflected in the Victorian Government’s 2023/4 budget.