This profile is part of a series on ADLS committee convenors.
Where do you work, what’s your role?
I’ve been a barrister sole since 1988. Over the last four years I’ve worked part-time and solely in the mental health area. Prior to that I also covered criminal cases.
Most of my work is legal aid cases. I began representing mental health clients because I had an intellectual interest in that area of the law. I’ve always been interested in mental health and how people cope with those stressors.
A huge number of the hearings I am involved with are thought-provoking. Many of the people I represent deal with their issues in a dignified way; there’s a level of humanity in these cases that you don’t get in other practice areas.
On the one hand mental health law is very straightforward and on the other there is a real element of mystery to it.
I work part-time now because of the way the hearings and timetables are structured. Sometimes the notification that you have a case or client can be short – only a few days.
In Auckland there are six teams of lawyers covering mental health cases and the workflow is based on patients coming into hospital. Because of the nature of mental health treatment and people relapsing or having episodes, there is a significant number of repeat clients. If, like me, you’ve been practising in this area for a while you tend to build up a big base of repeat clients.
Legal representation for mental health patients is required where a person needs to be treated beyond a three-week period because the Act requires a judge’s permission for treatment to continue, or where doctors want to treat a patient against their will.
Where did you study?
I completed my LLB at the University of Auckland, graduating in the early 1970s. I also have a BA majoring in psychology which I did out of curiosity. There’s a degree of overlap for lawyers between mental health law and criminal law.
What’s been your career to date?
It might come as a surprise but after law school I didn’t start working in the law.
I worked as a cook and in construction for about five years. Then in the early 1980s I went back to uni to study for a master’s degree which I didn’t complete. I ended up working for white collar unions, specifically the airline pilots, which I did for about five years.
In the late 1980s I got admitted as a barrister sole, and did a lot of work in the summary courts which I did for 20-30 years. I started taking mental health cases because I was interested in the “humanity in the criminal” as opposed to the “criminals in humanity”.
The work fitted my lifestyle. Four years ago I semiretired and began focusing solely on mental health cases.
How long have you been a member of ADLS?
I’ve always been a member. My early work was for unions; I’ve always had that mindset. When ADLS membership became voluntary, I still belonged. I have an office in Chancery Chambers. I believe you belong to the professional bodies that look after you because that’s what you should do.
How long have you been involved with ADLS committees and which committees have you worked with?
I’ve been on the Mental Health and Disability committee for a couple of years. I became involved after the changes that came about in Auckland’s mental health practice to restructure the roster that assigned work to lawyers.
It was decided to change the rules so anyone who wanted to do mental health work could be on the roster as long as they’d done some relevant CPD.
Mental health law is characterised by uncertainty, short notice and potentially difficult clients so it’s not for everyone.
Mental health is a huge area of obsession in our society and it will get even bigger. There’s no reason why people can’t join, if they have an interest. Our numbers are low, and there are lots of areas we are interested in such as the impact of long-term cannabis use on mental health, dementia issues and youth suicide rates.
At a political level there is a lot of interest – I would say obsession – with these things. What can we do at a legal level? Informed discussion is the starting point and our committee is a good place to do that.
Many people and families are affected by mental illness; long-term drug use, chaotic and violent childhoods, youth suicide, methamphetamine and synthetic drugs (no-one has the faintest idea about the impact of synthetics).
We want to encourage people interested in mental health law to come along to our committee and get engaged in the discussion. Get yourself on the roster; see how you feel.
Why is committee work important?
It comes back to my union analogy. Getting involved in ADLS gets you out of the “go to work, go home” mode. It’s about giving back.
How do ADLS committees make a difference?
There are suggestions that the Mental Health Act will be overhauled. So there will be a number of things to talk about in our committee and the opportunity to make submissions on the proposed legislation. There’s a lot of work involved with that. And there are lots of other societal issues that we can touch on, discuss and potentially influence.
For example, right-to-life and assisted suicide. How does that link to mental illness, where the desire to self-harm or take one’s life is often a factor and legal intervention is required to protect the patient? The challenge will be to put these two things together. It would be good to have a wide range of views on this subject.
What’s been the most notable achievement or biggest focus of your committee in the past few years? Why was that important?
We’ve recently been exercised by the legalisation of cannabis debate, and academic studies looking at long-term adolescent use of strong cannabis. The type of people that have a problem often have a raft of other issues.
I think there is a conflict between freedom and regulation. For example, the vaping laws in the US.
What would you say to anyone thinking of becoming involved in an ADLS committee?
Get involved, if you have an interest.
What’s the biggest issue facing your practice area at the moment? And how does that affect lawyers and their clients?
Societal changes. The aging population. Dementia issues. Mental health touches all aspects of society. Over time it will become bigger and bigger. There’s a mental health tsunami in our future.
The overhaul of the Mental Health Act will be one to watch. At this stage we’re unsure about what’s coming and how the compulsory element [of treatment] will be applied. People who have mental health issues should be treated, with compassion, not punitively. The nature of untreated mental health [issues]is frequently spectacular. It creates mayhem.
What’s the best-kept secret about ADLS?
I enjoy being able to talk to people I wouldn’t normally talk to. It is good to be part of a wider professional network. Collegiality and contact with a variety of people with differing professional lives.
To find out more about ADLS committees, contact Zong-Pei Zhao: email@example.com