Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The intersection of public health and human rights at SPHPM – getting to know Associate Professor Bebe Loff

For the latest SPHPM blog profile, we spoke with Associate Professor Bebe Loff, Director of the School’s Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights. Associate Professor Loff has worked in various capacities all over the world including the World Health Organization, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNAIDS. She coordinates the Master of International Health here at SPHPM.

How did you come to specialise in ethics and health?
My initial training was in law and philosophy. Health was accidental. I was unhappy in a position as a policy adviser to an Attorney-General and applied for a secondment to what was then the Health Department, Victoria. They were intending to undertake a review of legislation governing health services and public health. I was offered the position after what I had thought was a dreadful interview – I didn’t understand the abbreviations and acronyms that were being used. I found I loved the area and have been working in health related law, rights and ethics ever since (approximately 30 years).

Last year, Alfred Health, the Michael Kirby Centre and Maurice Blackburn Lawyers forged a partnership to begin trialling a new Health Legal Partnership Clinic offering free legal advice? How is that initiative going?
The lawyers provide legal advice, services and referrals to Alfred Hospital patients who have a health related legal issue other than straightforward Transport Accident Commission or WorkSafe matters.

Since its launch in May 2014, the service has been consistently in demand. The main areas in which assistance has been sought are medical and legal powers of attorney, wills, superannuation, housing, commission of a crime, family law and immigration. Over 400 patients have been assisted to date, referred from a range of departments including oncology, trauma, infectious disease, psychiatry and general medicine.

Lawyers have sometimes been called to attend at short notice. Examples of this have included patients who are terminal and who wish to organise custody of their children, and surgeons who have refused to operate unless the patient has completed a power of attorney. Evaluation of the service funded by the Legal Services Board of Victoria indicates that patients find this assistance relieves them of the stress associated with unresolved legal problems, allowing them to focus on their health.

What other exciting new projects are underway?
In partnership with the South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault (SECASA) within Monash Health, we are about to launch a restorative Justice pilot for survivor-victims of sexual violence who don’t want to engage with the formal criminal justice system or who have been advised that there is insufficient evidence to proceed with a prosecution. This represents the great majority of survivor-victims.

Restorative justice is an innovative justice process and is intended to empower survivor-victims to reclaim their voice and repair the harm done to them. It is an accepted justice option for other legal issues and may be court ordered, but not for sexual violence in a community setting independent of the police and the courts.

Supported by trained facilitators employed by SECASA, the survivor-victim will decide who should participate in the restorative justice process and how communication will occur. She/he will be able to describe in her/his own words what happened and how she/he was affected to the person who caused the harm.

Instead of a judge, survivor-victims and others who are involved make the decisions. This justice process can be flexible and responsive to survivor-victims’ needs and can be carried out in ways that aim to make survivor-victims feel safe, respected and believed. Free legal advice will be provided to survivor-victims and persons responsible for causing them harm.

SECASA has been providing the restorative justice process informally in response to requests from survivor-victims that have arisen organically. In recent years survivor-victims have asked whether it was possible to engage with the person who caused them harm in order to move forward with their lives. Instances have included sexual violence perpetrated by relatives, and those who have been complicit by protecting the perpetrators, as well as acquaintances with whom, in some cases, the survivor-victim cannot avoid coming into contact.

This project has been developed in association with police, prosecutors, and forensic medical and psychiatric officers among others. It is funded by the Victorian Department of Justice, the Australian Institute of Criminology, the Australian Communities Foundation, the Victorian Law Foundation, the Law Faculty and other donors.