United Natios to investigate 1970s human rights abuses at New Zealand psychiatric hospital

March 30, 2010


A former patient of the notorious Lake Alice psychiatric hospital in Manawatu is looking forward to a United Nations examination of events there in the 1970s, now that police inquiries have finished.

The police have written to Survivors of Lake Alice founder Paul Zentveld and fellow ex-patients to say they have completed an investigation into allegations against former psychiatrist Selwyn Leeks and decided against any prosecution.

Assistant Commissioner Malcolm Burgess wrote that the police had found insufficient evidence to support a charge of cruelty against a child under the Crimes Act, a conclusion which he said was supported by a peer review by an independent barrister.

Although the appropriate legislation for the complaints under investigation would have been the Mental Health Act 1969, which provided a penalty of two years in prison and a fine of $1000 for ill-treating a person in care at a psychiatric hospital, Mr Burgess said any prosecution would have to have been brought within six months of an offence.

Although the assistant commissioner said the decision was "probably not the outcome you are seeking", Mr Zentveld said he was pleased that former patients could finally take a case to the United Nations.

"We've waited 38 years for the police to investigate it and finally come up with this," he said last night.

"But it's all good, because it's going to the UN now. We can act now, because the investigation had to finish before we can go onto the next stage.

Auckland-based Mr Zentveld received court-ordered compensation of almost $115,000 for abuse at Lake Alice including 92 electric shock therapy (ECT) sessions over the five years after he was committed there as an 11-year-old in 1972.

He was one of 183 former patients awarded a total of $10.7 million by retired High Court judge Sir Rodney Gallen after taking civil action against the Government, and successfully sued the Crown for legal expenses originally deducted from the payout.

Mr Burgess said the police investigation - which took place between 2006 and 2009 - focused on allegations as they related to the activities of Dr Leeks, head of the hospital's child and adolescent unit before it closed in the late 1970s, who was accused by his former patients of punishing them with ECT and painful drug injection.

That was because Mr Burgess believed there was insufficient evidence from the outset for offending by other staff to be considered.

Dr Leeks, now in his early 80s, moved to Australia after his unit was closed and was ordered in 2006 by a court there to pay $55,000 in damages for sexually abusing a former patient in that country.

Mr Burgess said that even if the police had determined a prosecution could be sustained, repeated inquiries into the events at Lake Alice, a failure to establish any criminal culpability at the time, and the unavailability of witnesses through death or disability would have been grounds for an application of abuse of process.

Source: Mathew Dearnaley,  "UN to probe abuses at psychiatric hospital," New Zealand Herald, March 30, 2010.    


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