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Fighting for Wendy

18 June, 2020
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Many people know Wendy Robinson’s story.

Wendy has been championing for change after her parents, Ian and Margaret Settree, were murdered in their own home in Cobar by their son, Scott. The murder of Wendy's parents thrust her into a world of legal argument and the courts for years as Scott was sentenced with the special verdict of ‘not guilty by reason of mental illness’.

Last week in Parliament we debated a Bill to change the special verdict to ‘act proven, but not criminally responsible’ a historic change to the legal system in NSW.

The passage of this Bill through the NSW Parliament is the start of series of reforms that are needed to assist people in situations like Wendy’s.

I will be working with the Attorney General and Minister for Mental Health to review these laws to help people like Wendy who have been thrust into a legal battle during some of their toughest days.

MY CONTRIBUTION TO THE MENTAL HEALTH AND COGNITIVE IMPAIRMENT FORENSIC PROVISIONS BILL 2020

Mr ROY BUTLER (Barwon) (15:51:22):I thank the Attorney General for bringing the Mental Health and Cognitive Impairment Forensic Provisions Bill 2020 to the House. We are here today in part due to the passionate campaigning of Wendy Robinson. Wendy has been championing for change after her parents, Ian and Margaret Settree, were murdered in their own home in Cobar by their son, Scott, on December 2014. The murder of Wendy's parents thrust her into a world of legal argument and the courts for years. Scott had admitted to the shooting of Ian and Margaret. However, shortly before his trial in 2016, at Long Bay Jail, New South Wales, the in-house psychiatrist determined Scott had schizophrenia. Scott Settree was sentenced with the special verdict of not guilty by reason of mental illness in the Supreme Court of New South Wales. He was incarcerated indefinitely as a forensic patient within the system under the banner of the Mental Health Review Tribunal of New South Wales.

Wendy's story of struggle with the system was only just beginning. Under the Forfeiture Act, any person convicted of murder forfeits inheritance from the victim. But when a person is found not guilty by reason of mental illness this rule does not necessarily apply—it is at the court's discretion. Wendy was forced to take action in the New South Wales Supreme Court to prevent her brother receiving half of their parents' estate. Wendy won the case, but it cost her hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of drawn out legal affairs. This bill, the Mental Health and Cognitive Impairment Forensic Provisions Bill 2020, does not deal with the Forfeiture Act. I urge the Government to review the bill in light of stories like Wendy's. No person who has suffered the anguish of losing their parents like Wendy has should have to go through the fight she went through.

Today I will focus on the wording of the special verdict of act proven but not criminally responsible that is defined by the bill as "a special verdict of act proven but not criminally responsible entered at a trial or following a special hearing if the defence of mental health impairment or cognitive impairment is established." I will read directly from a letter that Wendy Robinson wrote to me, and I make copies of the letter available on the table of the House to all members of this place. Wendy wrote:

On the 3rd June 2020 the Hon. Mark Speakman, NSW Attorney General and the Hon. Bronnie Taylor, Minister for Mental Health released a press release headlined "Act Proven' to replace 'Not Guilty' in Forensic Mental Health Reforms".

One would assume this meant 'Act Proven by Reason of Mental Illness'. BUT no! The words "but not criminally responsible" were added to the special verdict at the same time the words "by reason of mental illness" were removed.

This does not change a thing in the eyes of the victims. Once again, the powers to be, the people we have been meeting with and the people we thought were finally showing some compassion to the victims are only rubbing more salt into the wounds of the victims and kicking us in the guts even harder. "Act Proven but not criminally responsible" is not much different to "Not Guilty by reason of Mental Illness". At least we have a start by changing Not Guilty by Reason of Mental Illness. Not Guilty rips into our hearts after the murders of our loved ones. We appreciate The Hon. Mark Speakman and the Hon. Bronnie Taylor's time through these discussions. However, both have presented a draft bill that is only going to open up further anger and debate with the victims. All we asked for was the word "Not" to be removed from the special verdict. I remember suggesting so many times "Guilty by Reason of Mental Illness". However, "Act Proven by Reason of Mental Illness" is also another good choice for the Special Verdict title. Victims acknowledge these killers are mentally ill, however want to see some responsibility in the special verdict for what they have done.

Have you EVER stopped to consider the mental state of a victim? Obviously not. It's tough!

"Act Proven but not criminally responsible" is a fair kick in the guts to us victims. While "Act Proven" is acceptable and we do like that, "not criminally responsible" is not acceptable. It is not much different to "Not Guilty". You are insulting us thinking we will be happy with this. All you have done is switched a bit of wording around thinking you are looking after the victims and society. It is a cosmetic fix and changes absolutely nothing.

That is an excerpt from a letter from Wendy Robinson. I thank her for writing to me. The wording change is significant to the victims of those crimes but insignificant in the administration of the bill. The wording change to what is acceptable to victims and what they have been campaigning for for years is unlikely to change the way forensic patients are handled in courts. When we make changes in this place, we must listen to those who have lived experience of the issues. Ignoring the input of the victims of crime and forging forward with a change they do not see to be fit is insulting to the many hours they have invested in making those necessary changes. I ask that in his reply to my contribution, the Attorney General addresses why the requests of people like Wendy Robinson were ignored in favour of the proposed wording.

I understand that when making changes to any area of law, many aspects must be taken into consideration. On behalf of Wendy, I would like an explanation of what led to the wording selection. I also foreshadow an area of change that we in this place must pursue for the protection of all citizens of this State and others. I preface those changes by stating that I do not seek to stigmatise people with a mental illness. I understand that people who are unwell, when left untreated, will act in ways no-one could anticipate. I am interested in better protection for people with mental illness or cognitive impairment and for our first responders.

For the safety of the community and the police, nurses and paramedics, we must look to a form of disclosure for the protection of anyone who may be exposed to a person convicted under a special verdict. It must also be available for the safety of the person with the mental illness if in the future they come to the attention of first responders. I thank Wendy and all those who have campaigned for years to see these changes made for their ongoing dedication to improving this area of the law for other families. It is not easy to turn such a tragic event into a positive, but they should know that due to their conviction and strength, today the New South Wales Parliament is focusing its time and resources in pursuing changes that they have fought so strongly for. My commitment to Wendy is to keep pursuing the outstanding matters that she has flagged. I look forward to working closely with the Attorney General on the issue.

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