Kirsty Johnston is an investigative reporter at the New Zealand Herald.

Health officials feared jail term over 'cruel' finding in Ashley Peacock case

Officials feared they would be jailed after the Ombudsman labelled the living situation of mental health patient Ashley Peacock "cruel, inhuman and degrading". Photo/Mark Mitchell
Officials feared they would be jailed after the Ombudsman labelled the living situation of mental health patient Ashley Peacock "cruel, inhuman and degrading". Photo/Mark Mitchell

Health officials mistakenly believed they could be jailed for the "cruel" treatment of a mental health patient, so pushed to publish a letter explaining their side despite privacy concerns.

Managers at Capital & Coast District Health Board also wrote to staff saying the cruelty finding - made by the Ombudsman about autistic man Ashley Peacock - was inaccurate, and told them not to take "negative media coverage" to heart.

Green MP Kevin Hague has slammed the board's behaviour as self-serving, saying they were acting not in the patient's interest or the public's interest, but their own.

He accused them of using privacy as an excuse "when it suits".

The revelations in Ashley's case come as the Privacy Commission this week censured the board's chief executive, Debbie Chin, for sending an all-staff email attacking the reputation of a mother whose son died in the hospital's care.

Internal emails obtained under the Official Information Act by the Herald about Ashley's case show managers working behind-the-scenes to delay the public release of a damning Ombudsman's report.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier found the board's treatment of Ashley, who is both disabled and mentally unwell, was "cruel, inhuman and degrading", and therefore a breach of New Zealand's international human rights obligations.

Ashley, 38, sleeps in a seclusion room in an isolated wing of a mental health ward in Porirua, and spends very little time outside. An expert panel has recommended he be removed from the unit, Tawhirimatea, to a community setting.

Prior to the release of the Ombudsman report, two senior officials, Nigel Fairley and Susannah Every-Palmer, each wrote to Chin with concerns.

They said the report was inaccurate, and wanted to include a letter they'd written in response with any information release, to "partially explain the situation".

While there was a need to protect Ashley's privacy, the Ombudsman's finding was "very serious" and could have consequences, they said.

"Part of the penalty can be a prison sentence," Fairley wrote. "I suggest we delay the release and meet. Doesn't matter if the OIA is a day or two late, compared to getting this right."

The finding does not allow for a jail term.

Despite the health board's protests, the Ombudsman is standing by its findings - which were eventually released with the accompanying letter on June 17 after the Herald obtained part of its contents from another source.

Hague said the decision to release the letter was at odds with the board's usual position of refusing to discuss the case publicly - except for appearing on television's Sunday programme - and done only to further their own interests.

"The health board and its officers have been relentlessly self-serving through everything we can see in Ashley's case," he said.

"They seem to be hiding behind privacy when it suits them but breached it with cavalier abandon to publish this letter."

Nigel Fairley, the general manager of Mental Health, said it was CCDHB policy not to speak publicly about individual clients but it made a "one-off" exception to go on television to correct "inaccuracies and misinformation".

"Discussing mental health clients publicly can not only impact their care and ability to reintegrate with their community, it can also hinder others from approaching our service for support because they think we'll talk publicly about their mental health conditions," Fairley said.

He did not explain why privacy concerns were waived in respect of the letter to the Ombudsman.

The belief someone could go to jail was subsequently clarified, he said.

- NZ Herald

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