Monday 23 May 2016

Thank you for not smoking

Think you have a right to smoke? Turns out you don't - or at least, not if you're on the premises of Thomas Embling Hospital, where a decision to implement a complete smoking ban was recently upheld by the Supreme Court in De Bruyn v Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health [2016] VSC 111.

The plaintiff's case 

Thomas Embling Hospital is a forensic psychiatric hospital whose patients include persons found unfit to plead or not guilty of a crime by reason of mental impairment. The plaintiff was found not guilty of the murder of his mother by reason of insanity in 1989, and has been an involuntary patient of the Hospital since the year 2000.

The plaintiff sought to challenge the Hospital's decision to implement a smoking ban on its grounds by arguing, amongst other things, that the Hospital had breached section 38 of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006. That section requires public authorities to act compatibly with human rights, and to give proper consideration to relevant human rights when making decisions. The Attorney-General, represented by the VGSO, intervened to make submissions on the application of the Charter.

The plaintiff argued that the smoking ban affected the right of all persons deprived of liberty to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person (s 22(1) of the Charter), the right of an accused person or a person detained without charge to be treated in a way that is appropriate for a person who has not been convicted (s 22(3)), and the right not to be subjected to medical treatment without consent (s 10(c)). He also raised the property right (s 20), as he was concerned that the Hospital proposed to confiscate his smoking paraphernalia.

The decision

The Hospital and the Attorney-General argued that none of the rights identified by the plaintiff were engaged by the smoking ban. Justice Riordan agreed, finding that the ban was a comprehensive, properly considered policy adopted after extensive consultation with patients, and although it was likely to cause some distress to the plaintiff, its purpose was to protect patients, staff and visitors from the harmful effects of smoking.  It did not interfere with the plaintiff's dignity or humanity, and further, it did not constitute 'medical treatment' as it did not involve any direct interference with the body or state of mind of an individual.

His Honour found that the plaintiff was neither 'accused' nor 'a person detained without charge' for the purposes of the right in s 22(3), and even if he were, the smoking ban did not constitute inappropriate treatment for an unconvicted person. Finally, his Honour held that the right to property was not engaged because there was no evidence that Mr de Bruyn would be permanently deprived of his smoking paraphernalia. The plaintiff's application was dismissed.

What is 'proper consideration'?

Justice Riordan's decision includes a helpful summary of what it means to give 'proper consideration' to relevant human rights. Key things for decision-makers to remember are:
  • You must seriously turn your mind to the possible impact of a decision on a person's human rights.
  • If the decision may limit rights, you must identify the countervailing interests or obligations that would justify the limit.
  • It's not enough to provide a 'pro forma' explanation of the impact on Charter rights - giving human rights proper consideration is more than just a box-ticking exercise.
  • On the other hand, you don't need to identify the 'correct' right or specific Charter provision, or explain the content of a right by reference to legal principles or jurisprudence. You only need to identify in general terms the nature and extent of the effect on the person's rights.
  • After identifying the actual rights affected, you must balance the competing private and public interests to determine if any limit is justifiable. There is no formula for this exercise - it will depend on the circumstances. Justice Riordan reiterated earlier judicial statements that this process should not be scrutinised overzealously by the courts.

    Consider the evidence

    The Hospital's evidence in this matter, which included evidence that the Hospital had consulted extensively with patients and sought specific legal advice on Charter issues, is a great example of a public authority being able to show genuine attention being given to Charter rights.

    Of course, this level of evidence won't always be necessary, particularly for day-to-day decisions with only minor rights impacts. However, if you're making a decision that will affect human rights, it's helpful to think about how you might demonstrate that you've given those rights proper consideration in case it later becomes an issue. Depending on the nature of the decision, you may find that a quick file note, a chat with the affected person could save a lot of trouble down the track. For more significant interferences with rights, you may wish to consider preparing a formal rights impact assessment, or even seeking legal advice to ensure that your decision is compatible with your obligations under the Charter.

    If you work in the Victorian public service and require further information on this case or advice on your human rights obligations, please contact:

    Senior Solicitor
    8684 0425      

    Managing Principal Solicitor
    8684 0247

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