27 May 2024

Former Lake Alice patient wins court appeal for ACC to cover electric-shock injuries

9:18 pm on 27 May 2024
The Lake Alice water tower was built in the late 1940s.

The Lake Alice water tower. Photo: RNZ / Jimmy Ellingham

A former patient of the child and adolescent unit at Lake Alice psychiatric hospital has won a court appeal for ACC to cover injuries suffered during electric-shock torture.

The man, whose name is suppressed, was denied cover by the corporation for cognitive impairment, mental disorder and burn injuries for when he was forced to undergo electroconvulsive therapy, known as ECT, in the mid-1970s.

The man was aged in his mid teens at the time.

But after a hearing late last month, Judge Denese Henare ordered ACC to cover the man for burn injuries, a brain injury and cognitive impairment caused by "ECT torture".

"While the claim seeks cover for injuries as treatment injuries the evidence shows the ECT administered at Lake Alice was not anything like treatment, it was ECT torture," Judge Henare said in her just-released decision.

She instead classed the injuries to the man as a personal injury, and ACC must fund neuropsychological testing to find its extent.

The judgment did not order any sums of money, but ACC must pay the man's costs.

The ECT was administered by the unit's lead psychiatrist Dr Selwyn Leeks, on a machine he modified to make the shocks more powerful.

The Lake Alice unit, in Rangitīkei, closed in the late 1970s when Leeks moved to Australia. He died two years ago, having never faced justice for his actions. Shortly before his death police said there was enough evidence to charge him, but he was unfit to face trial.

In 2023 ACC covered the man for physical injuries - sprains, strains, contusions and a minor head injury "relating to the unconventional ECT administered".

It also accepted cover for post-traumatic stress disorder as a mental injury.

The man did not think this went far enough, saying he still was not getting help for his cognitive problems, and ACC was not adequately recognising the injuries he received.

He had long-standing memory problems, and could not even recall properly one of his children, who had died.

The judge agreed with the man.

Lake Alice Hospital

Lake Alice psychiatric hospital. Photo: PUBLIC DOMAIN./ Pawful

The man filed a claim with ACC for cognitive impairments in 2016.

ACC initially declined claims in 2018. In 2019, a reviewer upheld its decision not the provide cover for a brain injury, as no specific personal injury could be identified, and for the burn injury, due to the absence of evidence from the time.

However, the man said records from Lake Alice were not accurate. Despite this, those records were relied on by psychiatrists when assessing him.

The man said he was rendered unconscious by ECT many times at Lake Alice, in either planned sessions or those administered as punishment.

He was also injected with painful paralysing drug, paraldehyde.

'The grim and appalling events of Lake Alice cannot be forgotten' - Judge Henare

"[He] said the effects of the abuse, cruelty and torture that he suffered were not just confined to his time at Lake Alice. They had been lifelong," Judge Henare said.

The man and his family had suffered as a consequence of what happened to him, and he might have given up if not for the support of his wife.

Dr Amanda Faulkner, a consultant psychiatrist, examined the man.

She said it was often overlooked that children and young people received ECT on a machine Leeks had changed, so it was not like conventional shocks, which lasted for seconds.

"The shocks [the man] received, as also described by multiple other Lake Alice survivors, lasted as long as 20 minutes and with no muscle relaxant or anaesthetic," Faulkner said.

"Children from as young as four years old, including [the man], were given these shocks to the point of rendering them unconscious, sometimes multiple times in one day."

ACC said the man's claim was challenging. It was difficult gathering evidence, as it was filed 40 years after the events. It was hard to find experts willing to talk about the effect of ECT in general, and specifically for the man.

Its lawyer Fenella Becroft said ACC did not deny what happened at Lake Alice, and the judge praised her for working to achieve solutions to the case.

Judge Henare said the man deserved compassion for what he had been through. His brutal treatment at the hands of Leeks was horrifying.

"The dark backdrop of this claim is incredibly significant. The grim and appalling events of Lake Alice cannot be forgotten, and they cannot be swept under the carpet."

The man told RNZ he was still digesting what the decision meant.

"Why should it be so hard and cost so much to get what you are entitled to after being injured, and why have so many GPs shied away from supporting my claim over the years?" he asked.

"None would fill the forms I needed over the last 45 years. The system is not working for the injured.

"Now I have to jump through many more hoops and form filling to claim for injury that is made so complicated, many must just give up."

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