Official Visitor Amendment Bill 2019 Introduced Into ACT Parliament

Thursday 22 August 2019 @ 3.10 p.m. | Judiciary, Legal Profession & Procedure | Legal Research

The Official Visitor Amendment Bill 2019 (the Bill) was introduced into the ACT Legislative Assembly by the Minister for Justice, Consumer Affairs and Road Safety, Shane Rattenbury (the Minister) on 15 August 2019. In general terms, the Bill proposes to amend the Official Visitor Act 2012 (ACT) (the Act) and the five operational Acts that fall under the ACT Official Visitor Scheme, namely the:

  • Children and Young People Act 2008,
  • Corrections Management Act 2007,
  • Disability Services Act 1997,
  • Housing Assistance Act 2007,
  • Mental Health Act 2015

According to the Minister's presentation speech, the purpose of the amendments proposed by the Bill is to give effect to the legislative recommendations of the 2017 Review of the Official Visitor Scheme by the Justice and Community Safety Directorate.

About the Official Visitor Scheme - Function and Role

In his presentation speech, the Minister described the "official visitor scheme" as an "independent monitoring scheme" for people who are being held in government institutions or staying in community facilities, and who are dependent on service providers. The people in this accommodation are described in the Act as “entitled people” and places (institutions etc) that can be visited by official visitors are known in the Act as “visitable places”.

An Official Visitors is to be an independent statutory office holder, who is usually appointed for their skills and expertise in the areas involved in the places they are visiting. Their function is to meet and talk with "entitled people" in visitable places to hear their concerns and to assist with and help resolve any complaints.

As part of their job, Official Visitors make reports to the Minister with responsibility for a visitable place about any issues of concern that they hear or observe, giving those Ministers "valuable and direct insight into what is happening on the ground in these places".

Examples of places visited by Official Visitors are: Bimberi and other residential out of home care facilities for children and young people; correctional facilities such as the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC; mental health facilities; accommodation for people with disability; and accommodation for homeless people.

It is a requirement also for some Official Visitors to be of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background, so as to better meet the needs of Indigenous people, who are according to the Minister "over-represented in many visitable places".

2017 Review of the Official Visitor Scheme

The Justice and Community Safety Directorate review of the scheme involved consultation with Official Visitors, Government Directorates whose legislation was covered by the scheme and community stakeholders. While the review confirmed that the Official Visitor Scheme was a valuable scheme and that "official visitors are highly trusted by clients and service providers alike", the review did, according to the Minister, identify opportunities to improve the operation of the scheme. In particularly by increasing the consistency in the way official visitors work in their different areas, the reports that they produce and the level of support they are provided.

Key Amendments to the Act and Operational Legislation

Amendments proposed by the Bill are as follows:

  • clarify the legislative functions of Official Visitors, including identifying, reporting and referring systemic issues of concern and the complaints handling function;
  • guide the exercise of Official Visitor functions, including promoting the human rights of entitled people and taking into account an individual’s wishes about how the visit is conducted;
  • remove the redundant position of Principal Mental Health Official Visitor;
  • require official visitors to be appointed under the Act rather than each operational Act;
  • remove the restrictions on Official Visitors visiting other operational areas when required to allow for greater flexibility and coverage by the scheme;
  • require visitable places to provide information to entitled people about the right to contact Official Visitors;
  • allow the Homelessness Official Visitor to visit entitled people residing in specialist homelessness properties;
  • allow official visitors to access relevant and necessary information about the operation of visitable places, including personal information and personalhealth information:
    • with the consent of the entitled person or
    • without consent in certain circumstances but subject to a range of safeguards for the privacy rights of entitled people;
  • clarify the role and functions of the Official Visitors Board to provide ongoing support to the official visitor executive officer and the official visitors;
  • provide that Official Visitors are not subject to direction by anyone else except as provided by the Act;
  • provide a more comprehensive reporting structure;
  • require Official Visitors to provide reports to the relevant operational Minister, and make appropriate referrals, about systemic issues or serious individual issues that require further action;
  • require a consolidated Official Visitor annual report to be tabled in the Assembly and publicly notified;
  • clarify that recruitment processes for Official Visitors are to be conducted independently from operational Directorates but the operational Minister is consulted regarding a proposed appointment;
  • replace the requirement to specify visitable places in guidelines with a requirement for the Director-General of an operational Directorate to maintain a register of visitable places.

Commenting in a media release on the Bill and the changes it proposes, the Minister is quoted as saying:

"The ACT is a proud human rights jurisdiction. In every area of Government, we're obliged to do what we can to ensure that human rights of all Canberrans, particularly vulnerable Canberrans, are being protected and enhanced. These amendments will further empower our official visitors to assist in achieving this."

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Official Visitor Amendment Bill 2019 [ACT] and Presentation Speech and Explanatory Statement, available from TimeBase's LawOne service

Media Release: Proposed changes to support Official Visitors to enhance human rights protections (ACT Government, 15/08/2019)

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