Australia Brisbane's Metro North hospital service broke government rules over lawsuit against patient
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The use of taxpayer funds for psychiatrists to sue a former mental health patient over a blog, broke Queensland government rules that were brought in to prevent Bjelke-Petersen-era misuse of defamation laws.
The ABC can reveal Australia's largest public hospital service, Metro North, bankrolled the $700,000 private defamation claim against a disability pensioner without seeking the approval of the Attorney-General, as required by government indemnity guidelines.
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A Right to Information (RTI) application by the ABC showed the office of the Attorney-General did not receive any request from Metro North regarding the legal action.
Former Metro North lawyer, turned whistleblower Alex Stewart, whose complaints about the handling of the case sparked an ongoing internal investigation into "suspected corrupt conduct", alleges chief executive Shaun Drummond signed off on the use of public funds.
The revelation has prompted a warning from Queensland Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman that it is "critical that the Queensland Government indemnity guideline is followed by all staff".
"I will be writing to all ministers to ensure they remind their respective departmental staff to follow these important provisions," Ms Fentiman said in a statement.
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According to government indemnity guidelines, "the state will not provide assistance to a public officer… [including] health service employees… to initiate or continue legal proceedings (including an action for defamation) unless… written approval has first been obtained from the Attorney-General".
An expert in the law of politics, University of Queensland professor Graeme Orr, said the guideline implied it was "not the norm to fund such an action" and failing to take it into account would mean the decision was not lawful.
But he said it was unlikely to be challenged in court, meaning it was a matter of "internal departmental concern [or] scrutiny by a parliamentary committee".
Professor Orr said the guideline existed for reasons "including issues in the past in Queensland with the misuse and politicisation of state funded defamation actions by Joh [Bjelke-Petersen] and his cabinet".
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"The purpose of the guideline is to protect not just the public interest in the proper use of state funds. It also is to ensure that lawyers in the Attorney-General's department give an independent assessment of whether the legal action is worthwhile," he said.
Metro North Hospital and Health Service is a $2.3 billion-a-year organisation that runs five hospitals including Australia's largest, the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital.
Critics, including former assistant state Health Minister Chris Davis, have accused Metro North of taking an unusually aggressive legal approach to defend its reputation in the wake of a separate alleged corruption scandal involving Mr Drummond's predecessor.
Metro North's RTI unit told the ABC it could not release documents related to funding the case against the former patient because they were part of an investigation into "suspected corrupt conduct".
The ABC has seen a copy of an invoice showing the psychiatrists' barrister billed Metro North just over $7,000 for work on the case over two years before they decided to no longer pursue it.
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That invoice was addressed to the same Metro North lawyer who sent a "concerns notice" to the former patient in 2017 as a prelude to the legal action.
It warned that her blog post claiming she was unlawfully held in a mental health unit was "seriously defamatory" of five of its psychiatrists.
Four of the psychiatrists sued her in the District Court for $700,000.
'Litigation not being pursued'
A Metro North spokeswoman said the litigation was "not being pursued… and no step has been taken in progress of that litigation in over two years".
Greens MP Michael Berkman, who questioned Mr Drummond about the investigation into the funding at a parliamentary estimates hearing in December, said the breaking of the indemnity rules "can't just be let past like this".
"This doesn't just look to be a simple administrative bungle — it's a flagrant disregard for really important Bjelke-Peterson-era anti-corruption [measures that] exist for a reason," he said.
"They're there to prevent officials from using public money to pursue and intimidate anyone who criticises them."
Mr Berkman, who is also the former patient's local MP, said it was "hard to believe in the first place that the government was using public funds for doctors to sue my constituent for approaching a million bucks".
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"That is a shocking abuse of process and it's even more concerning now that it appears that there could be corrupt conduct involved."
At the December hearing, Mr Drummond said the internal investigation — which is being conducted by an outside law firm at taxpayers' expense — was "a complex matter that actually intersects with many other issues".
Mr Berkman said it was taking "an extraordinarily long time" and the chief executive "quite clearly shouldn't be exercising any decision-making capacity where his conduct has been called into question".
Complaints about the lawsuit funding were first raised within Metro North more than two years ago by Mr Stewart, who said he was "aware that the authorisation for the funding came from the chief executive".
Mr Stewart said Metro North had made a number of legal threats to him since his disclosure to the ABC under whistleblower protection laws 18 months ago, including that it was "unlawful".
He said while it had backed away from that claim, there had been an "unreasonable delay" in Metro North's handling of his complaints.
"I take the view that the purpose of the delay is to avoid taking some reasonable and fairly simple steps to deal with the matter," he said.
The spokeswoman for Metro North said it was "unable to comment on matters that are the subject of an active investigation or confirm or deny the identity of persons who are the subject of that investigation".
"However, we can comment generally, that a subject officer in an investigation will not take any part in the decision-making process concerning the allegations against them," she said.
A spokesman for Health Minister Yvette D'Ath, who was not consulted as Queensland attorney-general when the defamation claim was filed in 2017, said it was "a matter for the current Attorney-General to address".
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