The Parliamentary Inquiry into rehabilitation in regional and rural NSW has heard from a Lismore solicitor.
The Parliamentary Inquiry into rehabilitation in regional and rural NSW has heard from a Lismore solicitor. John Gass

'Grim situation': No support for alcoholics, meth users

A SENIOR Legal Aid solicitor has voiced his concerns over inadequate services for clients who are dealing with substance abuse.

Hugh van Dugteren was solicitor-in-charge of Lismore's Legal Aid NSW office.

When he gave evidence to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Provision Of Drug Rehabilitation Services in Regional, Rural And Remote New South Wales, Mr van Dugteren said the issue of drug rehabilitation had been on his radar since he joined Legal Aid three decades ago.

He said 90 per cent of their clients had been charged with offences involving illicit drugs or alcohol.

The inquiry's Lismore hearing heard there were just two facilities on the Far North Coast - Namatjira Haven in Alstonville and The Buttery near Bangalow - which could take Legal Aid clients.

Mr van Dugteren, who was on the steering committee of the Magistrates Early Release Into Treatment program (MERIT), told the committee alcohol and heroin were the two major problem drugs during his first 15 years at Legal Aid.

But the program continues to exclude those addicted only to a legal drug that's been repeatedly raised as the biggest problem for service providers.

"The difficulty is that alcohol was not included in the MERIT program and people with alcohol abuse problems have real issues in obtaining appropriate treatment on the Far North Coast," Mr van Dugteren said.

"In the last say 15 years, particularly in the last five years, heroin is no longer the major problem that it was on the Far North Coast."

He said most clients were now struggling with alcohol or methamphetamines, or both.

Mr van Dugteren said there was a serious need for more drug rehabilitation services.

"Notwithstanding the introduction of MERIT, my view is that the lack of rehabilitation opportunities on the Far North Coat has been and continues to be a grim situation," he said.

Mr van Dugteren said many facilities had been tailored to fit alcohol and opiate addictions - not methamphetamine's longer detox and rehabilitation periods - and that outpatient services were "inadequate".

He said a Drug Court would be "a really good program for any rural area".

"The MERIT program has to put a hold on referrals for periods of time because their books are full, they are not able to assist people in custody... so that limits opportunities," Mr van Dugteren said.

"There is no Drug Court in rural areas; there is no Drug Court here.

"There is a Drug Court available to people in the metropolitan area and in Newcastle.

"My concern is that there are not the facilities and that people in custody have limited opportunities.

"The Department of Corrective Services has a directive that rehabilitation assessment orders, where people in custody can access welfare officers to assist them in contacting rehabilitation programs, are only made in relation to people who plead guilty."