OPCAT

New Reports – Women Deprived of Liberty

“In the present report, the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice analyses the causes of deprivation of liberty of women from a gender perspective to provide an understanding of the ways in which women are uniquely and disproportionately affected by deprivation of liberty, owing to structural discrimination throughout their life cycle. While deprivation of women’s liberty manifests differently in different contexts, there are common underlying causes: the persistence of patriarchal systems which shape gender stereotypes and forms of discrimination that normalize them. The report contains recommendations to support States in developing and implementing comprehensive measures that are aimed at legal, institutional, social and cultural transformation.”

Women deprived of liberty – Report of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice (UN Doc. A/HRC/41/33, 15 May 2019).

This highly welcome recent UN report examines the various factors which result in women being deprived of their liberty, not least poverty and marginalization. In the Canadian context imprisonment for crimes related to poverty remains a clear factor for the incarceration of women.

Moreover, as argued in the report, poverty shapes not only the crimes of which women are accused, but also their interactions with the criminal justice system, which also have an effect on the likelihood of their incarceration and its length.  

As is also widely recognized, once convicted and incarcerated, women often have less access than men to rehabilitation and reintegration services, owing to a scarcity of gender-responsive custodial services designed for women inmates. This reality can lead to worse outcomes upon release, increasing the risk of recidivism and possibly leaving women in a cycle of incarceration.

The UN Working Group report identifies other key factors resulting in the deprivation of liberty of women globally, including discriminatory social norms and gender stereotypes as well as women’s exposure to violence and conflict.

UN violence against women expert
Dubravka Simonovic, Special Rapporteur on violence against women present his report at the 38th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council. 20 June 2018. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

For an international perspective specifically on women in detention in Canada the newly published report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women on her April 2018 mission to Canada also merits a closer read.

The report calls on Canada to implement a whole range of important measures in relation to the treatment and conditions of women in detention, including, notably, Indigenous women.

Significantly, the Special Rapporteur urges Canada to ratify the OPCAT as well as to fully implement the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the UN Bangkok Rules.

In her report the UN Special Rapporteur focuses on an array of other issues within her mandate, including domestic violence, sexual assault of women and girls, trafficking, online violence and harassment, forced sterilization, and women who encounter multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and violence, specifically Indigenous women and girls.

The reports of the UN Working Group and UN Special Rapporteur are available for download.


Read more about the activities of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice.

Explore the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women.

Read more about Indigenous women in Canada’s prison system.

Read ‘The OPCAT – A Stuck Record?’ on Canada’s prolonged OPCAT ratification process.

Read the Canadian Correctional Investigator’s view on why Canada should ratify the OPCAT.

Posted by mp in Indigenous people, OPCAT, UN Special Rapporteur, Women prisoners, 0 comments

Academic News & Views: Twelve Years On – Reflections on New Zealand’s NPM

Some twelve years into its existence New Zealand barrister and High Court solicitor Michael White has offered some fascinatingly detailed insights into the operation of the country’s NPM.

Frequent visitors to this website will recall that New Zealand’s multi-body NPM is no stranger to these pages. Comprising some five different specialized bodies with the New Zealand Human Rights Commission executing the overall coordination role, the NPM’s operation has not been entirely without issue.

In an article titled ‘The role and scope of OPCAT in protecting those deprived of liberty: a critical analysis of the New Zealand experience’ author Michael White advances a balanced account of the functioning in practice of the mechanism. The academic piece appears in the Australian Journal of Human Rights’ tremendous Special Issue on the OPCAT, several articles from which have been showcased in these pages in recent weeks.

The focus on the New Zealand NPM is of particular interest to these pages, as Canada is also likely to adopt a multi-body structure as its future NPM.

Twelve years
Christchurch Police Car in The Sq. by NCSphotography (2010).

To briefly recap, the New Zealand NPM comprises five different specialized bodies, including: New Zealand Human Rights Commission; Office of the Ombudsman; Independent Police Conduct Authority; Office of the Children’s Commissioner; and the Inspector of Service Penal Establishments. More detailed information about the detention responsibilities of the different NPM bodies can be found on the Human Rights Commission’s website.

In his article, Michael White casts the operation of the New Zealand NPM for the most part in a positive light, as follows:

“Since 2007, OPCAT in New Zealand has developed and become a strong part of New Zealand’s human rights framework … The impact of OPCAT monitoring on the rights of those deprived of their liberty in New Zealand is significant. For example, positive progress includes upgrades and modifications to facilities; changes to policy and practice; and in a number of instances, identifying and addressing issues or problems relating to the situation of individuals in detention. However, this has not been without challenges.” (2)

In doing so, the author enumerates the various areas where clear gains have been made in terms of improvements. Such advances have included, among other things, the following:

  • The establishment of the NPM in 2007 introduced for the first time the independent monitoring of closed health and disability settings. Through the new NPM mandate independent monitors have been able to scrutinizes practices affecting the rights of persons detained in such locations;
  • Police policies and training have been updated to better identify risks and to prevent deaths in custody;
  • Despite on-going problems regarding their practice (as also highlighted in the article) the use of seclusion and restraint practices are now subject to better management processes;
  • Improvements have been implemented to the way sentencing orders are recorded and monitored, resulting in more timely access to parole hearings;
  • The introduction of systems have been ensured to track the use of force and search procedures;
  • Various improvements have been made to conditions of detention;
  • And there has been a raising of awareness of the situation of vulnerable groups in detention, especially LGBTQI.

As highlighted in a recent post, just as the Norwegian NPM, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, has been a driver of change, the New Zealand mechanism has similarly been a catalyst for betterment.

Twelve years
Australian Journal of Human Rights – image copyright of the AHRC Centre at UNSW Sydney.

Nonetheless, some very tangible challenges exist, of which funding remains a very significant factor. Michael White has underscored this key point:

“While NPMs all have a degree of structural independence, in practice independence can be compromised due to funding arrangements, resource constraints and existing operating measures. These issues will need to be continually reviewed as OPCAT continues to mature in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

The impact of resource constraints should not be underestimated. Monitoring visits in New Zealand are generally carried out by between one and four people. Furthermore, visit teams are not truly pluralistic as envisaged by OPCAT. They do not represent people with lived experience, or the diversity of the population (and more specifically the detained population). Furthermore, at times they lack the specific professional expertise to monitor a wide-ranging ambit of detention settings.” (13)

The author also notes that the regularity of visits undertaken by the NPM has been restricted by existing resources.

Somewhat surprisingly, the NPM does not widely publish the outcome of its activities, which is also rightly deemed to be problematic in the eyes of Michael White. According to this legal expert, until recently the NPM only published an Annual Report and no other reports of its monitoring activities were readily available. In contrast, other NPMs do regularly publish reports above and beyond just an annual document.

Finally, as a further challenge, the scope of OPCAT Article 4 and the legal understanding of deprivation of liberty in New Zealand is more limited than might be the case elsewhere. However, Michael White acknowledges that this discussion is on-going:

“In June 2018, the Minister of Justice gazetted new responsibilities for the Office of the Ombudsman under its OPCAT mandate. The Ombudsman is now responsible for monitoring dementia units in private aged care facilities (as well as court cells). While this is a significant step forward, there are still a wide range of places where people are or may be deprived of their liberty that are not covered by New Zealand’s NPM designations, such as community disability residences, aged care homes and educational facilities.”

This same point also relates to the deprivation of liberty of persons in residential care by dint of their lack of legal capacity. The author underscores the potential role the NPM might play in relation to the New Zealand’s international obligations under the UN CRPD in this same regard.

Based of these twelve-year-long OPCAT reflections the writer advances a list of some nine key elements, which he deems crucial for an effective and OPCAT-compliant framework. These key elements include NPM attributes such as independence, mandate, resourcing, transparency and accountability, collaboration, expertise, and engagement with civil society, among other essential items. If Canada is to institute an effective NPM, all nine elements should be taken heed of by the Canadian authorities.

In summary, the experiences of the New Zealand NPM are there to be drawn on by Canadian actors, more so at a time when OPCAT ratification is said to be under consideration in the country (despite the absence of any public information about progress in this regard). In his highly engaging article Michael White succeeds in great measure in highlighting the gains made by the NPM over the past twelve years as well as the existing challenges facing the New Zealand multi-body mechanism.


Many thanks once again to Steven Caruana for his assistance in relation to this post.

The above article was published in the current issue of the Australian Journal of Human Rights, on 16 April 2019. The article can be accessed free-of-charge here.

Read an overview of other articles in the Special Issue on the OPCAT of the Australian Journal of Human Rights, including on immigration detention and the OPCAT.

Lean more about the operation of the New Zealand NPM.

Visit the New Zealand Human Rights Commission’s website on the OPCAT.

Posted by mp in New Zealand, NPMs, OPCAT

The OPCAT – A Stuck Record?

Readers of a certain age with fond memories of buying vinyl LPs and 7” singles at Woolworths, HMV or Tower Records will vividly recall the immense annoyance of the phenomenon known as the ‘stuck record’. You will no doubt remember that highly prized The Smiths or Roxy Music record that stuck and repeatedly jumped mid-song, obstinately refusing to budge and play all the way though, without an emphatic prod of the stylus?

In truth, this same vexation of yore is more than just a little bit like the OPCAT ratification process in Canada. Unless, someone in the room applies some heft to the process, the needle is unlikely to move much further forward, if at all.

Therein lies the rub. If not from the Canadian Government, it is difficult to see where this shunt will come from at the domestic level.

After all, just three or so years ago the then Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion, announced that the OPCAT ‘will no longer be optional for Canada in the future”’.  But what since?

stuck record
Record Player – Robert (2014).

The great paradox, it should be said, is that a wide swathe of the international human rights community believes that Canada should ratify the instrument. It is deemed to be ‘a good thing’. Yet next-to-nothing appears to be happening in practice on the home front to advance the process.

In December 2018 the Canada OPCAT Project met representatives from Global Affairs Canada, the lead government department where the OPCAT file currently sits. The latter reassured this writer that there was movement behind the scenes. Yet without the placement of any such OPCAT related information into the public domain how can we really be certain?

Moreover, despite a pledge made to the UN Committee against Torture in Geneva in November 2018 that domestic civil society and Indigenous communities would be consulted on the domestic ratification process, over the past four-and-a-half months nought has seemingly happened in practice to make good on this assurance.

In contrast to the domestic dragging of feet, international calls on Canada to ratify the OPCAT continue undiminished. Just this past week the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities concluded her 11-day April 2019 mission to Canada with a recommendation that Canada should ratify the OPCAT.

stuck record
Catalina Aguilar Devandas, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities – UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

In December 2018 the UN Committee against Torture urged that Canada should complete the process and, in so doing, consult with Canada’s third sector. To date, neither recommendation has apparently been implemented domestically.

Just a couple of months earlier, the Canadian Government itself responded to its May 2018 Universal Periodic Review by stating before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that it would consider the ratification of the instrument. During this UPR process some 27 different countries advanced recommendations that Canada should either ratify the OPCAT or consider its ratification.

Finally, upon the conclusion of a mission to Canada in April 2018 the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Dubravka Šimonović, also recommended the ratification of the OPCAT.

All of this in the short space of a year.

Let it also not be forgotten that, as far back ago as 2006, Canada first used the pledge of OPCAT ratification during its candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council, a pledge unfulfilled to the present day, some 13 years later.

So, does the Canadian OPCAT ratification process bring to mind that veritable stuck record in that we are hearing a track that never seems to move forward? Most likely it does.

And quite unlike your favourite Smiths or Roxy Music record of old, the seemingly open-ended OPCAT refrain of the Canadian Government is no longer even remotely interesting or entertaining, some 13 years after it began.


Read more about Canada’s open-ended OPCAT ratification process.

Discover how the OPCAT might be implemented in Canada.

Read why Canada’s Correctional Investigator deems the OPCAT an important human rights instrument for Canada.

Posted by mp in OPCAT, Ratification

Top UN Disability Expert Urges OPCAT Ratification & End to Disability Based Deprivation of Liberty

A leading United Nations disability expert concluded an 11-day mission to Canada on Friday by urging the country to ratify the OPCAT in a broader focused, critical End of Mission Statement. In the same document the UN expert expressed concern about the over-representation of persons with disabilities in adult and youth prisons and their deprivation of liberty on the basis of disability in healthcare settings.

The Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas Aguilar, wound up her extended mission to Canada in the nation’s capital, Ottawa, on 12 April 2019, having visited cities and communities in Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

disability expert
Catalina Devandas Aguilar, United Nations, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities during A Day For All, Event. 3 December 2015. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

In the statement the UN disability expert highlighted an array of concerns, including vis-à-vis Canada’s legal and policy framework. In this connection she urged Canada to ratify the OPCAT as well as other key international human rights instruments.

In relation to the wider issue of deprivation of liberty Catalina Devandas Aguilar advanced various concerns, not least concerning prisons. She stated:

“I am very concerned about the overrepresentation of persons with disabilities, particularly those belonging to indigenous or other minority communities, in both prisons and the juvenile justice system. I have also received alarming information that persons with psychosocial disabilities are diverted to mental health courts for minor offences where they are subjected to higher penalties and stricter regimes.”

More generally, the UN Special Rapporteur expressed disquiet about deprivation of liberty on the basis of disability in Canada.

In January 2019 the UN disability expert issued a report, ‘Rights of persons with disabilities’, which underscored the widespread deprivation of liberty of persons on the basis of impairment:

“The deprivation of liberty on the basis of impairment is a human rights violation on a massive scale. Persons with disabilities are systematically placed into institutions and psychiatric facilities, or detained at home and other community settings, based on the existence or presumption of having an impairment. They are also overrepresented in traditional places of deprivation of liberty, such as prisons, immigration detention centres, juvenile detention facilities and children’s residential institutions. In all these settings, they are exposed to additional human rights violations, such as forced treatment, seclusion and restraints.” (§85)

Disability expert
Abandoned psychiatric institution by Michael Hummel (2009).

The UN disability expert witnessed glimpses of this depressing global reality during her mission to Canada, voicing the following concerns:

“Provincial and territorial legislation across Canada provides for the involuntary hospitalization and treatment of persons with psychosocial disabilities, in contradiction to article 14 and 25 of the CRPD. For example, the Mental Health Act of British Columbia contains very broad criteria for involuntary admissions and, once detained, a person can be forcibly treated without their free and informed consent, including forced medication and electroconvulsive therapy.”

As highlighted on this website a few weeks ago, a critical report by the Office of the Ombudsperson of British Columbia cast a long, dark shadow over the efficacy of fundamental detention safeguards in the province’s mental health institutions. In a word, they have been mostly ignored in practice.

The UN expert’s End of Mission Statement continues:

“I have been informed that the rates of involuntary admissions and community treatment orders are increasing across Canada. Similarly, the number of inpatient beds in psychiatric hospitals, particularly in forensic units, is also increasing. In addition, different interlocutors told me that there is a significant number of persons with psychosocial disabilities who no longer need to be in the hospital but cannot leave due to the lack of community-based alternatives.”

“I urge the provincial and territorial governments to transform their mental health systems to ensure a rights-based approach and well-funded community-based responses, ensuring that all health care interventions are provided on the basis of free and informed consent.

“I have also noticed that there is a lack of independent monitoring of mental health facilities and institutions. I would like to recommend the provincial and territorial governments to establish independent monitoring mechanisms for centers of deprivation of liberty, including hospitals and institutions.”

Several of the above concerns regarding the deprivation of liberty on the basis of disability and use of coercion were also underscored by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health during a November 2018 mission to Canada.

In a report issued earlier this year the Canada OPCAT Project also highlighted the lack of independent oversight of such institutions, a point echoed by the UN Committee against Torture during its November 2018 examination of Canada.

Whether Canada will act on these collective concerns, including by ratifying the OPCAT, remains to be seen. Regrettably, there is little to suggest that OPCAT ratification is a political priority for the Canadian Government at the present moment, despite its past assertions to the contrary.  

On a slightly more positive note the UN Special Rapporteur concluded her End of Mission Statement by emphasizing the following:

“As a highly-developed nation, Canada still lags behind in the implementation of its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. There are significant shortcomings in the way the federal, provincial and territorial governments of Canada respect, protect and fulfill the rights of persons with disabilities. Notwithstanding, the country has the potential to undertake a major transformation and fully embrace the human rights based approach to disability introduced by the Convention. The various pilot initiatives and good practices in place could, if adequately scaled up, promote systemic change for persons with disabilities in Canada.”  

The UN Special Rapporteur’s full report on her visit to Canada is scheduled to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2020.

Finally, Canadian civil society actors may also wish to take note that, in August/September 2019, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will draft the List of Issues Prior to Report in relation to Canada and its second periodic review. This moment will be a timely opportunity for Canadian civil society to indicate to the UN Committee the key issues to which Canada should be responding in its subsequent report. The Canada OPCAT Project will keep readers posted of any developments in this respect.


Read the End of Mission Statement.

Read the UN Special rapporteur report focused on ending deprivation of liberty on the basis of disability. Lire le rapport en français.

An alternative version of the report designed for wider distribution is also available.

Explore the Special Rapporteur’s dedicated website.

Visit the related OHCHR website on Catalina Devandas Aguilar’s work.

Posted by mp in Health care, OPCAT, Places of detention, Prisons, Psychiatric detention, UN Special Rapporteur, UNCRPD

Academic News & Views: Special Issue on the OPCAT

“OPCAT has the effect of making places of detention more transparent. However, transparency is not, in itself, this treaty’s end goal. OPCAT exists ‘to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’. In other words, the ratification and implementation of OPCAT must contribute to the eradication of mistreatment in all of Australia’s places of detention. If it does not achieve that aim, it will have failed.”

Foreword to the Special Issue on the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) – Bronwyn Naylor, Edward Santow, Sophie Farthing, Penny Weller & Stan Winford, Australian Journal of Human Rights, 4 April 2019.


If one interchanged the reference to Australia for Canada in the above quotation, the ultimate purpose of the OPCAT as an international torture-prevention instrument would still remain the same.

Yet, as highlighted in a recent article on the implementation on the OPCAT in Australia, the latter has progressed much further in doing so than its Canadian counterpart.

Even so, the current Special Issue on the OPCAT in the brand-new edition of the Australian Journal of Human Rights merits a closer read by both Australians and Canadians alike. Contained therein are various interesting OPCAT insights as well as a number of lessons which might be transposed from the Australian into the Canadian context.

The Foreword to the Special Issue on the OPCAT, from which the above introductory quotation is taken, kicks off with a general overview of the issue and the three main contributing articles comprising the issue.

Special Issue
Australian Journal of Human Rights – copyright of the AHRC Centre at UNSW Sydney.

The first article, penned by Bronwyn Naylor and Stan Winford from RMIT University in Melbourne, is titled ‘Implementing OPCAT through prison monitoring: the relevance of rehabilitation’. The authors argue that the broad scope of the preventive mandate under OPCAT clearly permits the inclusion of rehabilitation and that various NPMs have, to date, included rehabilitation in their OPCAT monitoring activities.

In making this argument, the authors draw references to the rehabilitation-focused monitoring activities of NPMs in France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons in England and Wales is discussed in some detail in this connection, particularly its set of monitoring standards known as ‘Expectations’. The article concludes:

“Ratification of OPCAT requires establishment of comprehensive monitoring frameworks to prevent ‘torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’ in places of detention. As Australia begins this process, it is important to ask the question: To what extent should monitoring by NPMs address the rehabilitative aspects of imprisonment? We have argued here that it is critical that they do so.” (p. 13)

For Canadian readers perhaps less familiar with the potential rehabilitative scope of the OPCAT at the national level, the contributors advance a strong case for why such an approach should be the case.

Special Issue
Detention by Matt (2009).

The Special Issue on the OPCAT continues with an article by Penelope Weller, also of RMIT University in Melbourne, titled ‘OPCAT monitoring and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’. Like Canada, Australia is a State Party to the UN CRPD and thus obliged to work towards its implementation in practice.

The writer contends that Australia’s preventive monitoring regime under OPCAT must consider and take account of the CRPD and the particular experiences of people with disabilities in places of detention. In this latter connection she writes:

“People with disabilities are more likely than others to live in institutional settings such as social care, disability, health and mental health homes and hospitals. While these places are established to provide care, they are also places where people may be deprived of their liberty and are at risk of experiencing violence, abuse and discrimination. Persistent revelations about incidents in aged care homes and psychiatric facilities confirm the ever-present risk of violence and abuse in such places … People with disabilities are also disproportionately represented in traditional places of detention, such as prisons and police cells, and similarly disproportionately at risk of detention and abuse in such settings.” (p.2)

As a recent investigation into acts of abuse in a healthcare setting in New-Brunswick revealed, the above risk is very real. Moreover, the frequent disregard in practice of fundamental safeguards in such healthcare settings, as highlighted in a March 2019 report of the British Columbia Ombudsperson, potentially heightens such risk. Penelope Weller makes a well-reasoned argument why the scope of OPCAT Article 4 should include a wide array of healthcare settings in Australia, a line of argument which would equally apply to the Canadian context.  

In this same regard the writer also argues that a reading of the OPCAT in light of the CRPD suggests that any deprivation of liberty based on disability-related discrimination, as defined by the Article 14 of the CRPD, may be construed as torture. Moreover, as persons with disabilities may suffer a diversity of abuses in healthcare settings, including seclusion, restraint, involuntary treatment and sexual assault, there exists the need to incorporate such disability awareness into OPCAT monitoring principles, methods and practices.

In a word, as healthcare deprivation of liberty contexts are not the same as prisons or police stations, a different monitoring approach is required under the OPCAT and CRPD, the possible specificities of which the author outlines in some detail. Penelope Weller concludes her unique article by stating: “Infusing OPCAT with the CRPD principles will produce a robust preventive monitoring approach.” Even though the writer’s geographic focus is Australia, the lessons she draws from the CRPD and OPCAT might equally apply to North America.

Special Issue
Centré de détention de Venna by Sara Prestianni (2009).

In the final article in the Special Issue on the OPCAT two very well-known British academics, Rachel Murray and Nick Hardwick, reflect on the question, ‘Regularity of OPCAT visits by NPMs in Europe’.  

The paper examines how NPMs in Europe have interpreted the concept of ‘regular’ visits in the hope that this exercise will be of assistance to those involved in the establishment of Australia’s NPM. Based on a combination of publicly available reports and survey materials, the article is highly interesting.

For Canada the task of ensuring both coverage and regularity of visits by its future NPM over a potentially vast geographic area, some two-and-a-half times larger than the European Union space, will not be insignificant.

The authors note from the outset that the concept of NPM regularity has been under-explored in the published literature on the OPCAT, somewhat surprisingly so it must be said. On the issue of regularity they comment:

“By July 2018, 38 NPMs had been designated in Europe, the largest number in any region. As is seen below, the practice of these NPMs varies considerably, with a number of factors coming into play when one is trying to identify what is regular, and the extent to which, even if one could define regularity, any NPM is fulfilling this requirement.” (p.2.)   

Nonetheless, the authors skilfully dissect the concept of regularity, discussing its definition, the types of NPM visits, and the notion of frequency. They also discuss in detail the different factors determining regularity, including UN Subcommittee on Prevention and other international guidance as well as the NPMs’ own criteria. Unsurprisingly, geography, NPM resources, organizational mandate and the depth and length of visits all impact on regularity to varying degrees. The authors conclude:

“Across the world NPMs have been established at great speed. In Europe alone, in little more than a decade, 38 NPMs have been designated. Every year they are carrying out hundreds of independent preventive visits to places of deprivation of liberty, which in many cases were hidden from scrutiny before. The very speed of their development has meant there is relatively little detailed evidence of how NPMs have gone about their task and ‘what works’. This limits the opportunity for new NPMs, including that in Australia, to draw on the experience of those that have gone before. The paper explored one of the most basic questions facing NPMs: how NPMs understand and apply the requirement to undertake ‘regular’ visits.” (p.20)

Despite such limitations, Rachel Murray and Nick Hardwick offer the Australian/ Canadian reader some very useful general conclusions. In a word, regularity means different things to different organizations and it is not always equated with frequency. As such, the authors recommend that a newly established NPM in Australia (or Canada) might wish to consider how it views regularity.

Special Issue
Detained abstracts 1 by Greenmonster (2010).

In addition, NPMs routinely take into consideration a number of factors when visiting a given facility and not just the frequency or the length of time which has passed since the last visit. Examples of such factors would include: the size of the team; the availability of resources; the overall magnitude of detention facilities to be visited in any given country; the different types of visits (announced or not); and the receipt of complaints as an indicator of potential problems in a given facility. These same factors will unquestionably impact on the work of the future Canadian NPM, as it determines its program of monitoring activities.

In conclusion, the Australian Journal of Human Rights has done an excellent job in compiling some extremely interesting and unquestionably cutting-edge papers on the topic of OPCAT. Even though their focus may lie outside the borders of Canada (Australia and Europe), the issues under discussion (rehabilitation, healthcare settings as deprivation of liberty, and regularity of visits) are as equally relevant in the Canadian context, perhaps more so at a time when more of us could be thinking longer and harder about the potential application of the OPCAT in the country.

Finally, as this short review post barely skims the surface of the three excellent academics articles, readers are warmly encouraged to refer to the full articles for more in-depth information about the very useful ideas advanced in them.  


***Many thanks to Rachel Murray and Steven Caruana for their assistance in relation to this post.

The above articles appear in the current issue of the Australian Journal of Human Rights, published on-line on 4 April 2019. The articles can be accessed via Shibboleth or OpenAthens or can be purchased via this link.

A further article in the OPCAT Special Issue on immigration detention can be read here.

If you have written a recent academic article on the OPCAT, or a related topic, with a potential ‘Canada angle’ and would like an ‘Academic News & Views’ mention, please let us know.

Read earlier ‘Academic News & Views’ posts, including an article by Marie Steinbrecher on NPM independence and effectiveness and by Professor Juan Mendez on a healthy prison environment.

Explore what the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities has recently said about deprivation of liberty on the basis of impairment.

Posted by mp in Australia, Implementation process, NPMs, OPCAT, Places of detention

OPCAT in a Land Down Under

If this writer could not resist the temptation of employing the much-loved Men At Work ‘Down Under’ song reference in this post’s title, then you too will hopefully not resist reading the current edition of the ICPA External Prison Oversight and Human Rights Network newsletter with its Australian OPCAT focus.

As featured in an earlier article, with a spotlight on the current OPCAT implementation process in Australia the newsletter has considerable relevance for the Canadian context with its lessons of good related practice. This fact rings especially true at a time when Canadian government authorities at all levels have apparently been discussing potential OPCAT implementation among themselves, albeit lamentably with practically no one else, not least civil society.

As a fellow federal state, the parallels between Australia and Canada are not insignificant. While Australia has 9 jurisdictions (one federal, six state and two territorial in scope) compared with Canada’s 14, the distinct challenges of implementing the OPCAT in a multi-jurisdictional state structure still have to be met.

Down Under
Maitland Gaol by OZinOH (2007).

Even though reservations have been expressed in these pages about Canada adopting a multi-body approach to OPCAT implementation (please see the Canada OPCAT Project discussion paper, Instituting an NPM in Canada), Australia appears to be forging ahead in this direction, emulating countries like the United Kingdom, New Zealand and the Netherlands.

Australia ratified the OPCAT in December 2017, postponing the obligation to institute an NPM by up to three years through a Declaration under OPCAT Article 24. As a result, the country has until January 2022 at the latest to put in place its NPM.

The current ICPA newsletter offers readers a deep dive into the OPCAT implementation process in Australia through the contributions of seven leading human rights academics and detention monitors. Professor Bronwyn Naylor of RMIT University in Melbourne kicks off the Australian OPCAT discussion, offering an informative sweep to date of the overall implementation process in the country. In doing so, she comments on the task of designating multiple bodies as the future NPM:

“The implementation process in Australia therefore involves identifying all relevant places of detention, and all existing monitoring bodies, and – probably most challenging – decisions at state, territory and federal level about whether and how existing bodies could take on the OPCAT monitoring role, and what might be needed to make them OPCAT compliant …

Some of the Australian monitoring bodies, such as the prisons inspectorates and Ombudsman offices, have some or most of the OPCAT characteristics. However across Australia there are both gaps in coverage, and overlapping powers. There are also inconsistencies across states and territories, with varying degrees of independence and effectiveness of monitoring bodies.”

While a similar auditing process took place in Canada in 2017-2018, relatively little information about it has been allowed to seep into the public domain.

Down Under
Ground Floor Maitland Prison by Bill Collison (2012).

In contrast, according to Professor Naylor, in Australia the process of identifying places of detention and establishing a baseline of the extent to which existing oversight bodies are currently OPCAT-compliant is being carried out by an arms-length government body designated to coordinate OPCAT implementation in the country, the Commonwealth Ombudsman. Unlike in Canada, this study is to be made public in an upcoming 2019 report.

Contemporaneously the Australian Human Rights Commission has been conducting a broad constituency consultation into the role of civil society in the implementation of the OPCAT as well as the later operation of the NPM (please visit the institution’s OPCAT Consultation Page). If Australia is willing and able to open up its OPCAT consultation process, Canada’s closed, locked-down process remains all the more perplexing.

In a nutshell, even though the Australian OPCAT consultation process has not been without certain criticism, it remains light years ahead of Canada in terms of its openness, transparency and inclusiveness. Professor Naylor’s article offers an excellent overview of this process up to the current point in time.

Steven Caruana, the Inspections and Research Officer at the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services in Western Australia, and himself no stranger to these Canada OPCAT Project pages, convincingly argues how the OPCAT is being used to strengthen existing oversight bodies in the country, highlighting various illuminating examples thereof. He writes:

“These next two years are crucial times for the advancement of correctional oversight in Australia. Effective and substantial compliance with the OPCAT, in the fitting words of the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Ed Santow, ‘…could be the single most positive development this decade in improving conditions in all Australian places of detention.’ State and Territory governments will need to turn their attention to the requirements of OPCAT. They will need to consider the most suitable existing agencies and what resourcing and legislative requirements will be necessary for them.

Equally important, Australian oversight agencies will need to proactively assess whether their mandate and methodologies are compatible with OPCAT.”  

Thus, OPCAT ratification is being used as a moment of introspection by the government authorities and certain existing oversight bodies, which is most encouraging.

Down Under
Light in the Darkness by Drew Douglas (2007).

In her contribution to the OPCAT discussion, Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass extends the above analysis to her own institution, noting:

“When, in 2017, the Commonwealth Government announced that Australia would ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT), people might have assumed it would be business as usual in Victoria…

For those of us working in this area, however, it was clear that OPCAT would require change. It introduces more rigorous standards for local inspections of places of detention by National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs). By opening detention to United Nations scrutiny, it also demands much closer attention to international standards for the treatment of detainees.”

Citing several so-called pilot OPCAT investigations undertaken from 2017 onwards, the author brings to life Steven Caruana’s key point that the OPCAT can be harnessed to improve and enhance existing oversight activities on the part of detention monitoring bodies.

In a further illuminating article, Rebecca Minty and Holly Fredericksen of the Office of the Inspector of Correctional Services in the Australian Capital Territory, underscore how the OPCAT text was used to inspire the drafting of the statute which brought into life this oversight body in 2017:  

“The legislation to establish the ACT OICS was developed to reflect the requirements and expectations around the establishment of a national preventative mechanism under the OPCAT. This resulted in the creation of a preventative focused independent statutory authority with all the powers and guarantees required in OPCAT, for example, the right to access to any place of detention at any time, the power to speak with detainees and staff, and the right to access documents including registers. Furthermore, when conducting an examination and review, the ICS Act requires that the review team include those with expertise relevant to the subject matter being reviewed, and all reports from examinations and reviews must be publicly tabled in the Legislative Assembly.”

Once again, we see the positive influence of the OPCAT instrument as an international point of reference for best detention monitoring practice.

In other articles more operational accounts are offered of other existing Australian detention monitoring bodies, including the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services in New South Wales, South Australian Ombudsman Office, and the Chief Inspector of the Queensland Corrective Services. All of these bodies may feasibly play a future role as part of Australia’s NPM. 

Down Under
Port Arthur (Tasmania) by Andrea Schaffer (2010).

Some Final Thoughts

With less than three years to put in place an NPM, the Australian OPCAT implementation process appears to be moving steadily forward. More impressively still, Australian civil society has succeeded in establishing an informal OPCAT network to coordinate their respective activities, to closely shadow as well as to feed into the on-going OPCAT consultation process, to which several of the above contributors belong. While no analogue civil society network currently exists in the Canadian context (bar this creaking website), this might be another best practice to be drawn from the Antipodean colleagues.

Though the task of re-purposing a sizeable number of existing monitoring bodies as the future NPM should not be taken lightly, several such oversight bodies in Australia are clearly using the OPCAT as central point of reference against which to gauge and recalibrate their existing inspection activities. In itself, this process of reflection appears to have been an important outcome of the OPCAT implementation process, despite there being much work ahead in this respect.

Yet none of the above would have been possible without a reasonable degree of willingness on the part of the Australian authorities to open up the domestic OPCAT process to discussion – crucially with civil society. Gloomily, as previously stated, such openness and inclusiveness has been almost entirely lacking in Canada, despite international recommendations and advice to this end.

This impenetrability and opacity aside, the OPCAT discussion process Down Under remains an invaluable benchmark of how such a national discussion might be conducted in future in Canada. It goes without saying that we wish our impressive Australian colleagues the very best of luck with these crucially important torture-prevention endeavours.


The next installment of the ICPA Network newsletter is scheduled for September 2019 with the featured country jurisdiction of Argentina and the featured topic of “Strengthening our Correctional Cornerstones: Rights, Dignity, Safety and Support.” Persons interested in contributing an article should contact the Office of the Correctional Investigator.

Read the current ICPA Network newsletter.

Read an earlier article based on the current newsletter titled Critical Expert Focus on Solitary Confinement.

Read ICPA Network newsletter No. 1.

Visit the Network’s webpage and see who is a member.

Make a request to join the Network by contacting Canadian Correctional Investigator, Ivan Zinger.

Listen to Steven Caruana talk about the Australian OPCAT process on C3R radio.

Posted by mp in Australia, Implementation process, NPMs, OPCAT, Oversight bodies

Critical Expert Focus on Solitary Confinement

With its focus on solitary confinement, the second newsletter of the ICPA Network on External Prison Oversight & Human Rights brings to the forefront an extremely topical human rights discussion in Canada.

The recent high-profile release from a provincial Ontario prison of Adam Capay, after spending some four-and-a-half years in solitary confinement, aptly illustrates how problematic this questionable human rights practice has become in the Canadian context.

As highlighted on this website in October 2018, the International Corrections and Prisons Association (ICPA) Network was launched during the organization’s 2018 Annual Conference in Montreal, Quebec. The Canada OPCAT Project shortly thereafter featured the inaugural newsletter in an article with its focus on Canada, including on the OPCAT.

In the brand-new newsletter the focus has shifted to the issue of solitary confinement in prisons. The world-leading academic expert on solitary confinement, Sharon Shalev, opens the newsletter discussion, offering a critical assessment of its widespread use from the perspective of the United Nations Nelson Mandela Rules. She concludes her contributing article as follows:

“The fact that solitary confinement has been with us since the early days of the prison must not blind us to its harms, nor to its limited utility in achieving much beyond physically containing the individual separately from others. For too long prison managers and administrators have resorted to its use simply because it was there … The Nelson Mandela Rules remind us that we need to reserve it as a tool of last resort, when all else has failed and when no lesser restrictive method can achieve the purpose of the isolation. And then it must only be used for a very short time, whilst respecting the prisoner’s basic rights and treating them with dignity and respect. They also remind us that if it looks and feels like solitary confinement, it probably is solitary confinement, no matter what it is called.”

Solitary confinement
Cell Number 5 by Allissa Richardson (2011).

The latter highlighted point rings especially true in the Canadian context at a time when Bill C-83 is being discussed, which – critics have argued – seeks to essentially re-frame the use of solitary confinement in the country without abolishing the practice.

The current ICPA Network newsletter offers a view from Canada in this same connection, penned by the Ontario Supreme Court judge, David P. Cole. In his article the writer advances an overview of recent legal challenges and key judicial decisions in relation to the use of solitary confinement. Beginning with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s 2016 challenges to the ‘administrative segregation’ regime employed by federal correctional authorities through to the 2019 Adam Capay decision of the Ontario Supreme Court, David P. Cole charts the various legal arguments against its use. In relation to the highly publicized Adam Capay case from January 2019 Judge Cole writes at some length, stating:

“By far the most shocking recent Ontario decision is the case of R. v. Capay 2019 ONSC 535, where a trial judge refused to allow a murder charge to proceed because of numerous constitutional violations made by provincial penal authorities resulting in a remanded accused spending 1,647 days in solitary confinement, most in a perpetually lit cell … During the prisoner’s first two months in solitary, the accused – who had admittedly killed another prisoner by stabbing him with a pen – was kept in extreme isolation, never receiving a psychiatric evaluation or basic attention from prisoner staff, who had been instructed not to “enter into discussions” with him. Local and regional prison authorities were required by Ministry policy to conduct regular reviews of the accused’s segregation status, all designed to ensure that solitary confinement does not last longer than necessary. No reviews at all were conducted during the first few months, and most of the rest were found by the trial judge “to have remained irregular and perfunctory”. The judge further found that the harshness and squalor of the conditions in solitary were important factors in leading to his conclusion that the exceptional remedy of “a stay” should be imposed.”

Solitary confinement
Solitary Confinement by garshna (2013).

The newsletter closes its focus on acute isolation at the other end of the Americas with Argentina. Francisco Mugnolo of the National Prison’s Procuracy Office dissects the findings of a 2014 study conducted by his institution into the practice in the country’s 35 federal prisons. In doing so, he describes the different forms assumed by solitary confinement in the country. Based on this investigation as well as other complementary studies, the writer concludes the article as follows:

“Over the past 10 years, the solitary confinement procedure in federal prisons has expanded and solitary confinement “functions” have been diversified. Thus, the deprivation of liberty involves a series of additional punitive measures that are seen only in terms of punishment. These include accommodation in confined spaces, isolation, permanent restriction of movement, measured and monitored time, delay in granting and violation of rights, subjection to arbitrary rules and regulations, ill-treatment, and physical and psychological prison violence for thousands of inmates at the federal level.”

Taken together, these three impressive contributions underscore the pressing need for reform in relation to the harmful global practice of solitary confinement.

In addition to the above three lead articles, newsletter no. 2 helpfully includes a bibliography of useful documents and resources on the topic under its Selected Academic Articles and New Publications sections.

Solitary confinement
View finder on solitary confinement door by Tulio Bertorini (2005).

The latter section of newsletter no. 2 is devoted to the featured country jurisdiction of Australia. Whereas newsletter no. 1 focused on Canada as a jurisdiction, the current publication takes in Australia, with a very strong slant on the OPCAT as well as other forms of oversight of deprivation of liberty in the country.

As a country which ratified the OPCAT in December 2017 and which is currently in the process of instituting an NPM, there are unquestionably various important lessons for the equivalent national OPCAT discussion in Canada. As such, this section of the Network newsletter will be discussed in detail in a separate, forthcoming Canada OPCAT Project article.    

In sum, however, the ICPA Network on External Prison Oversight & Human Rights has succeeded in producing another highly thought-provoking human rights read with a prison focus. Readers are encouraged to explore its 55-pages and perhaps even consider the merits of joining this expanding expert cluster, now boasting some 65 members from 20 countries. If the humanization of deprivation of liberty is a cause close to your heart, then this ICPA Network may well be for you.  


Read the current ICPA Network newsletter.

Read the follow-up post about the newsletter’s focus on OPCAT implementation in Australia.

Read ICPA Network newsletter No. 1.

Visit the Network’s webpage and see who is a member.

Make a request to join the Network by contacting Canadian Correctional Investigator, Ivan Zinger.

Visit Sharon Shalev’s Solitary Confinement resource website.

Read more about the UN Nelson Mandela Rules and see the related UNODC posters.

Read the new reports by the Manitoba Ombudsman and Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth on the findings of a joint investigation into the use of pepper spray and solitary confinement in youth correctional facilities in the province.  

Posted by mp in Oversight bodies, Prisons, Solitary confinement

COPCAT Shorts – A Dialogical Dead-End & Abandonment of Torture Prevention?

“Distressingly, and as foreseen, 2018 saw a decline in the number of visits undertaken by the Subcommittee. This diminution in productivity is not for the want of dedication, but for the lack of human resources provided to the Subcommittee by the United Nations to allow it to undertake its work as mandated by the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture.”

“The Subcommittee believes that in many parts of the world there appears to be backward movement concerning commitments to the prevention of torture and ill-treatment. This is not only reflected in the reports of various organizations and groups; it is reflected also in the lived reality of the Subcommittee: too many States parties appear to have resiled from their enthusiasm and commitment to torture prevention, by challenging the mandate of the Subcommittee and not establishing and supporting national preventive mechanisms as the Optional Protocol envisages.”

Subcommittee concern
Winter scenes in the Ariana Park (2012) – UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre

“In its work, the Subcommittee hears much rhetoric that does not reflect reality. The Subcommittee understands this, and why this is so often the case. The Subcommittee is committed to working with States parties to change those realities and close that “reality gap” – in confidence and with understanding and sensitivity. At the same time, the Subcommittee’s overriding priority must be the victims of torture and ill-treatment. The Subcommittee was not created, or the Optional Protocol adopted, to provide a “dialogical dead end” down which the interests of the most vulnerable and most imperilled of those in detention can be forgotten.”


Twelfth annual report of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UN Doc. CAT/C/66/2, 13 March 2019) § 49, 52-53.


Read the UN SPT’s 12th Annual Report in English.

See the Statement of SPT Chair, Professor Malcolm Evans, to the UN General Assembly Third Committee in October 2018.

Explore key UN SPT documents and other reports on the OPCAT and NPMs.

Posted by mp in NPMs, SPT, UN Subcommittee

CBSA Release of Canadian Red Cross Immigration Detention Report

Successfully evading the watchful eye of even the Canada OPCAT Project, the first report of Canadian Red Cross monitoring of immigration detention in Canada has been released.

Published by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) on 14 February 2019, where the news item remains a front page feature, the report highlights the findings of Canadian Red Cross monitoring of immigration detention in Canada in the period September 2017 to March 2018. A French version of this key report is also available on the same website.     

If the CBSA seems only too pleased to mark the release of the Canadian Red Cross’ CBSA detention report, the said report has oddly yet to surface on the Canadian Red Cross website. Even so, its publication comes as a very welcome step in opening up a detention setting in Canada, for which there is currently no statutory arms-length oversight body.

CBSA detention report
CBSA by British Columbia Emergency Photography (2014)

Instead such facilities are monitored as part of a two-year agreement between the CBSA and the Canadian Red Cross, as highlighted in the Executive Summary of the recently published report. In the document the Canadian Red Cross summarizes its main findings, as follows:

“Under the reporting period, the IDMP carried out a total of fifteen (15) visits to detention facilities holding immigration detainees between December 2017 and end of March 2018. Based on our observations made during this reporting period, CRCS grouped its concerns into the following five themes:  

  • Co-mingling of immigration detainees in correctional institution;
  • Lack of orientation about the detainees’ rights and responsibilities in detention;
  • Difficulties in accessing certain medical service;
  • Lack of access to outdoor areas in some visited facilities;
  • Difficulties in maintaining contact with families.”

On the basis of the CRC’s findings and observations the report makes the following recommendations:

  • “Where detention is necessary, to hold immigration detainees in facilities other than correctional prisons and where this is not possible, to separate immigration detainees from the rest of the prison population; 
  • To ensure that immigration detainees are fully aware of their rights and responsibilities, regardless of their place of detention; 
  • To ensure that immigration detainees have access to adequate mental health services wherever they are detained; 
  • To provide immigration detainees with daily access to outdoor areas as well as recreational activities; 
  • And finally, to allow regular and adequate contact between detainees and their families.”

In reaction to the Canadian Red Cross report, the CBSA has issued its Management Response and Action Plan, outlining its raft of proposed actions.    

CBSA detention

In contrast to certain other countries, Canada’s dedicated immigration holding regime is relatively small, comprising just three facilities. However, the country’s provincial prison estates are also used for the dispersal and detention of immigration detainees, a practice not without accompanying concern. Moreover, annually, sizeable numbers of persons are detained on immigration grounds.

According to the Canada Border Services Agency, in the fiscal year 2017-2018 some 8,355 persons were detained for a total of nearly 120,000 detention days in Canada. Of this number, 6,609 persons were held in one of the country’s three Immigration Holding Centres, while the remainder were detained in provincial and other facilities.

It bears noting that, during its examination of Canada in November 2018, the UN Committee against Torture voiced various concerns about recourse to immigration detention in the country, including the use of provincial prisons and the absence of any arms-length oversight body of such detention facilities.

During the said review in Geneva, the Canadian delegation stressed its intention to make public the annual reports of the Canadian Red Cross Immigration Detention Monitoring Program. The publication by the CBSA of the first annual report of activities is therefore to be welcomed.


Read the CRC report in English.

Read the CBSA Management Response and Action Plan in English.

Lire le rapport de l’CRC en français.

Lire la réponse de la direction de l’ASFC et un plan d’action en français.

Examine the Concluding observations of the UN Committee against Torture from December 2018 concerning oversight of immigration detention in Canada.

Explore the Canada OPCAT Project’s other featured articles relating to immigration detention, including the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Law Border Criminologies publication, HMIP Detention Monitoring Methodology: A Briefing Paper (2018) and the Global Detention Project reportHarm Reduction in Immigration Detention (2018).

Posted by mp in Immigration detention, Oversight bodies, UNCAT

Committed to Change – Involuntary Mental Health Detention in B.C.

In a critical new report by the Office of the Ombudsperson of British Columbia a long, dark shadow is cast over the efficacy of fundamental detention safeguards in the province’s mental health institutions.

The March 2019 report, Committed to Change: Protecting the Rights of Involuntary Patients under the Mental Health Act, reveals some unsettling findings regarding the far-reaching extent to which mental health law-related safeguards are ignored in practice by health-care practitioners in the province of British Columbia, as the Infographic below succinctly illustrates.

Committed to Change
Committed to Change Infographic (March 2019)

Patient rights in B.C. are protected through a series of legal procedures which practically take the shape of written forms to be completed on admission. These crucial forms bring to life an array of key detention-related safeguards. Routinely these forms must be completed upon admission of a person to psychiatric detention, demonstrating that the detention criteria has been met, consent to treatment has been obtained, there has been a notification of the patient’s rights, and his or her relatives have been notified. As the Commitment to Change report reveals, these basic rights have frequently been ridden roughshod over in practice.  

The press release accompanying the report quotes B.C. Ombudsperson Jay Chalke as stating:

“Involuntary detention and treatment is the most intrusive form of mental health care available. This is a failure to comply with the Mental Health Act, the law that allows people who are gravely ill – our friends, daughters, sons, parents and grandparents – to receive timely treatment while protecting their legal rights … The state, when it uses such an extraordinary power, has a critically important duty to follow the law. This includes properly completing documentation of what is happening to an individual and why. To not do so is not only unacceptable, it is contrary to law.”

The report’s findings were based on an investigation that reviewed admission records of every involuntary admission in the province that took place in June 2017. In 2016-2017 alone, some 15000 persons were involuntarily admitted to mental health institutions in the province.

A detailed analysis of mandatory admission forms from June 2017 found that across the province, all of the required forms were completed in only 28% of involuntary patient admissions, as the above Infographic illustrates. Key findings include:

  • A number of directors of designated facilities admitted and detained people involuntarily without adequate information and reasons to demonstrate how the patient met the criteria for admission;
  • There was no consent for treatment form in 24% of patient admissions across all health authorities;
  • A number of directors of facilities  permitted the psychiatric treatment of involuntarily detained patients in circumstances where the patient objected to treatment and no Consent for Treatment form was completed;
  • There was no rights advice form for more than half of the involuntary patients. This form advises the patient of their legal rights including how to get legal advice and challenge their detention;
  • The health-care authorities acted unreasonably in failing to adequately monitor, audit and address designated facilities’ compliance with the involuntary admission procedures under the Mental Health Act.

Interested readers may also wish to watch the following short animation, which captures the main findings of the B.C. Ombudsperson’s report.

According to the report, there exists in the province of British Columbia some 77 acute in-patient mental health units and other psychiatric facilities. Canada-wide, the Canada OPCAT Project has calculated at least 234 such facilities (please see chapter 3 of the 2018 report, Instituting An NPM in Canada – Lessons Based on Global OPCAT Practice). The wide-spread disregard of fundamental safeguards in detention in British Colombia is therefore especially worrying in view of the large numbers of such facilities.

In its Executive Summary the report states:

“We were disappointed to find significant levels of non-compliance when we reviewed the forms. In many cases, forms were simply not completed. In many other cases, the forms were completed late or in a manner that did not provide anything close to adequate reasons.” (p.6)

It also underscored the key point:

“Failure to complete these forms is not just a matter of missed paperwork; it is a failure to follow the law. The safeguards in the Mental Health Act protect the inherent rights and dignity of some of the most vulnerable people in our society. When they are not observed, the balance between individual rights and society’s interest in protecting people with mental illness is upset.” (p. 7)

The B.C. Ombudsperson’s Office report makes 24 recommendations, all of which have reportedly been accepted in principle by government and health authorities.

In this same connection it bears noting a recent report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas Aguilar. In her 2019 report, which was presented at the 40th session of the UN Human Rights Council on 5 March 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur has questioned the very notion of deprivation of liberty on the basis of impairment. Her reports merits a close reading, as it goes a considerable way in questioning the international legality of this extremely wide-spread practice.

From an oversight perspective, however, the UN expert’s report also stresses:

“National preventive mechanisms, national human rights institutions and independent mechanisms for the promotion, protection and monitoring of the implementation of the Convention must be expressly mandated to carry out inquiries and investigations in relation to the deprivation of liberty of persons with disabilities and provide them with assistance in accessing representation and legal remedies. Disability-specific settings of deprivation of liberty, such as psychiatric facilities and other institutions, must be effectively monitored. Having accurate data on the numbers of persons with disabilities deprived of their liberty will also allow monitoring of the trends and changes over time, thus enabling better preventive and deinstitutionalization strategies.”

If and when Canada ever ratifies the OPCAT, NPMs under the OPCAT will have a key role in monitoring Canada’s in-patient psychiatric facilities.

Under the OPCAT NPMs should regularly monitor psychiatric institutions and social care homes. For example, in England and Wales the Care Quality Commission undertakes this vitally important function, issuing a range of reports on mental health institutions, residential care and nursing homes as well as its flagship annual report on the implementation of the Mental Health Act. Similarly, the Parliamentary Ombudsman of Norway annually visits a significant number of such facilities, some reports of which can be found in English.  The monitoring of such domains is also currently a priority area for the Swiss NPM, the Commission nationale pour le prévention de la torture. There additionally now exist useful practical tools on the monitoring of such detention settings (please see under Other Resources).


Read the full report, Committed to Change: Protecting the Rights of Involuntary Patients under the Mental Health Act.

Browse the accompanying press release.

Examine the related Infographic.

Committed to Change

Read the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities 2019 report, Ending Deprivation of Liberty on the Basis of Disability.

Watch the presentation of the 2019 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities at the 40th session of the UN Human Rights Council on 5 March 2019.

Study the New-Brunswick Ombud’s 2019 report on the deliberate ill-treatment of mental health patients at a facility in the province.

Posted by mp in Health care, Oversight bodies, Psychiatric detention