Monday, February 01, 2021

Retired judge hammers ‘soft’ punishments on juvenile offenders

A retired District Court judge who was renowned as Queensland’s toughest lawman has condemned the Children’s Court as a ‘revolving door’ where kid criminals are given ‘a slap on the wrist’.

Speaking out after the Alexandra Hills horror, Clive Wall QC said it appeared ‘nothing has changed’ since he slammed the court’s failings in a judicial broadside eight years ago.

In a 2013 speech after a wave of violent juvenile crime on the Gold Coast, Judge Wall said child offenders often walked from the court ‘smiling and laughing’ after receiving a reprimand or good behaviour order.

The veteran judge, whose hard line sentences attracted among the most appeals of all the state’s judges, called on the judiciary to enforce the Youth Justice Act and order parents of child criminals to pay compensation to their victims.

A rarely-used section of the Act allows such orders to be made if slack parenting contributed to the offence happening.

He echoed sentiments made in 2013 that the focus was too often on the child offender and not on the victim or the community.

Judge Wall, who retired in 2016 after 20 years on the Bench, told the Sunday Mail: “Just from what I’ve read in the press, nothing’s really changed.”

“The Children’s Court is still a revolving door and juveniles are still getting a slap on the wrist.”

Judge Wall called for public safety to be taken into account when releasing juvenile offenders on bail.

“You wouldn’t normally lock a juvenile up for a first offence of unlawful use of a motor vehicle (car stealing) but if they are a repeat offender, the risk to public safety should certainly be considered,” he said.

“I’m not so sure it is at the moment.”

He said lenient sentences meted out by Children’s Court magistrates needed to be more regularly reviewed.

Canberra emergency department wait times are the worst in the country

It took five hours for Kathryn Harradine's six-month-old son Andy to be treated for a lung infection at Canberra Hospital's emergency department.

The excruciating wait for the Canberra mum was difficult to endure, but not an uncommon tale.

Fewer than half of Canberra's emergency department (ED) patients are seen within clinically recommended times — they should be discharged or admitted within four hours of presenting. Only 32 per cent of patients met that target.

But when Andy, who spent time in neonatal intensive care for serious bowel obstructions when he was younger, started "becoming more and more unwell," Ms Harradine took no chances and went straight to the ED.

He was diagnosed with bronchiolitis and, while it is common in babies, Ms Harradine said she had no choice but to present at the ED for the diagnosis because it was outside general practitioner hours and her son was too young to be seen at Canberra's walk-in centres.

"You can't go anywhere else. That's the whole thing," Ms Harradine said. "There's one place you can take your kids and that's the paediatrics emergency department at Canberra Hospital.

"We were actually taken into the adult area of the hospital because the paediatrics area was just overflowing that evening, and we were there probably until about 2am. There's just not enough space."

Fed up with the poor performance, Rachel Stephen-Smith wants to be the ACT health minister to finally turn around these blown out emergency department waiting times. Her goal is to have 70 per cent of ED patients seen within clinically acceptable times by October this year — that gives her nine months.

"The emergency department is really challenging and it has been a challenge for a long time, both at Canberra Hospital and Calvary Public Hospital," Ms Stephen-Smith acknowledged. "Our target — and the national target — is 70 per cent. We are nowhere near that at this point in time. We want to get to that target within 9 months. "I am personally concerned that we haven't started seeing that change as quickly as we would have liked."

And while no-one would argue against Ms Stephen-Smith's intentions, many would be sceptical of the system's ability to achieve the goal in only a matter of months — after all, the most recent national scorecard again placed the ACT's public hospital ED departments worst in Australia.

But Ms Stephen-Smith said Canberrans would not have to wait years until the much-anticipated Canberra Hospital expansion was completed before improvements would be seen.

Part of her plan involves Canberra Health Services trialling having a doctor at the triage point of the ED, with the aim of improving patient flow.

Based on her recent experience, Ms Harradine has urged Ms Stephen-Smith to improve the triage process so people who can be diagnosed and discharged are not left with a "distressing" wait. "Things need to change. Something needs to be done," she insisted.

Ms Stephen-Smith said she had heard anecdotes similar to Ms Harradine's and hoped that the trial to embed a doctor earlier in the process would be a solution.

"It's about triaging people appropriately and making sure they're in the right stream [and] also determining whether a nurse or a doctor can start a treatment process straight away," she said. "For example, ordering diagnostics and blood work that they know is going to be required for that patient."

Ms Stephen-Smith's nine-month goal also hinges on the establishment of a discharge lounge for patients who require some level of care up until being released despite no longer needing a bed, such as people returning to aged care residences.

A further change being trialled to reduce bed block was "ward huddles" which Ms Stephen-Smith said would help staff prioritise discharging patients in a timely way.

Ms Stephen-Smith said she was meeting with Canberra Health Services weekly to discuss the changes — which have been trialled over the past 18 months — and the same questions were being asked.

"How are we going? How are these processes becoming embedded? And when are we going to start to see change?" she said. "I am personally concerned that we haven't started seeing that change as quickly as we would have liked." Nonetheless, she expressed confidence change would be evident within nine months.

More than 1,000 patients overdue for elective surgery
The emergency departments are not the only facet of Canberra's public health system plagued by long waiting times.

A quarter of all patients who needed elective surgery like hip or knee replacements in the ACT waited too long in the 2019-20 financial year.

Data from November 2020 showed there were 5,127 people on the elective surgery waitlist, more than 1,000 of which were overdue for treatment.

Canberra orthopaedic surgeon Paul Smith recently told ABC Canberra he decided to work through the Christmas break to conduct 65 surgeries in just over a fortnight, to improve the quality of life of people who had been languishing on a waitlist.

In response to Professor Smith's interview, hundreds of people contacted the ABC to share their experiences of waiting too long for surgeries in the ACT.

One of those Canberrans was occupational therapist and former nurse Ruth Palavestra, who spoke out over her father's treatment. Ruth said her elderly father had waited so long for scans and an appointment with an orthopaedic surgeon, that by the time he was seen, his injury was inoperable. "Dad's gone from being completely independent, completely fit, to needing to use a walking stick and a wheelie walker," Ruth said. "The surgeon told him he'll be on the wheelie walker permanently now."

Despite approaching his 90th birthday, Ruth's father had been active before the injury, driving himself around Canberra and living independently. "It's just incredibly frustrating because I see my Dad deteriorating rapidly and becoming quite frail when there's no need for that to be happening," Ruth said.

"The aim of aged care these days is to keep people in their own homes as long as they can. "If you can't keep them independent and you can't provide wrap-around services, then they need to move into supported accommodation, and that's catastrophic."

Ms Stephen-Smith insisted the system was powering through elective surgeries, pointing to data showing the ACT had removed more people from the elective surgery waitlist than had been added in the year to June 30, 2020.

She also reiterated a target of completing 16,000 elective surgeries this financial year. "Am I pleased that there are 1,000 people overdue waiting for elective surgery? Absolutely not," she said. "I would like to see that number be zero."

Victorian Government bans high-risk cladding for new multi-storey buildings in 'world first'

A ban on cladding deemed by the Victorian Government to be high risk comes into force today in a bid to reduce fire hazards.

Victoria's Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne, announced that flammable aluminium composite panels and rendered expanded polystyrene would be banned for use as external wall cladding for all multi-storey developments into the future.

"These products are a high risk when used inappropriately or installed incorrectly. That's why we've acted to ban them for new multi-storey buildings," he said in a statement.

"This ban will ensure new developments are built to the highest standard to keep Victorians safe."

The prohibited materials will not be allowed for use on apartment buildings, hotels, aged care facilities and other residential buildings with two or more storeys.

The ban also applies to office buildings, retail premises such as shopping centres, warehouses, factories and car parks with three or more storeys.

"We're continuing to act on the most up-to-date expert advice on cladding products, and anyone caught flouting this ban will face significant penalties," Mr Wynne said.

Building companies that breach the ban will be fined up to $400,000, to be enforced by the Victorian Building Authority. Individuals can be fined up to $80,000.

Mr Wynne called on other states and territories to take a co-ordinated, national response to the issue. "We would've hoped of course that other states, particularly up the eastern seaboard, would've followed us and I've tried to persuade my colleagues in other states who've also got this problem of combustible cladding to join us but unfortunately they've been unwilling to do so," he said.

Mr Wynne said he expects the building industry to fully embrace the changes. "We don't expect any backlash at all from the building industry more generally because we have consulted very widely and industry absolutely understands the critical importance of ensuring that we put up buildings that are clearly safe."

The Victorian Government said a cost-benefit analysis found the ban would result in a net economic benefit of around $1 million per year in reduced insurance costs.

The flammable properties of aluminium composite cladding was blamed for the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London that killed 72 people.

Cladding has been a major headache for Victoria as well as other jurisdictions across Australia. Insurance companies have stopped giving surveyors personal indemnity coverage for properties with cladding.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has previously declared it a "national problem".

The Andrews Government announced a $600 million Cladding Rectification Program in July 2019 to reduce hazardous cladding on existing buildings, which Mr Wynne said was a "world first".

Cladding Safety Victoria was established to oversee the process.

An audit of more than 2,200 buildings in Victoria found cladding on hundreds of buildings posed a safety risk, including an "extreme risk" in 72 cases.

Consumer Advocacy organisation, The Victorian Building Action Group, has said that $600 million is not enough to fix the problem of cladding in the state.

The Opposition's planning spokesman, Tim Smith, estimates the real cost of removing cladding on buildings in Victoria is upwards of $2 billion.




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