Change of meds led to flat arson

A misdiagnosis and a change of medication led a woman to set fire to a rented flat while she was inside, after a mental health episode.

The fire caused major damage to an inner city Christchurch flat, and caused some damage to the property next door.

The woman, now aged 57, was repeatedly seeking medical help for her deteriorating condition at the time of the incident in May 2017.

“Unfortunately, for various reasons that didn’t occur, and you ended up setting this fire,” said Christchurch District Court Judge Jane Farish as she faced the decision on where to place the woman.

She decided to grant name suppression because the woman had earlier been found not guilty of the arson because of insanity.

She had never been in trouble before, and had lived with her mental illness for 30 years. It was because her illness was effectively untreated because of the medication change that she came into contact with the criminal justice system for the first time.

Defence counsel Andrew McKenzie noted the clear change in the woman since her previous appearances. “She’s got some hope for her future,” he told Judge Farish. The woman even had enrolment forms to further her education.

Judge Farish recalled that the woman had been “very distressed and obviously not very well” the last time she appeared. “I see you have had a bit of a rough run with your medication,” said the judge.

Because the woman was found not guilty by reason of insanity, no reparation orders can be made. The insurer will be left with the cost of the fire in the Barbadoes Street flat, and the judge could not make an order for $600 damage for the neighbouring property.

However, Mr McKenzie said the woman wanted to do something to make up for what she did and she might eventually be able to make a donation to the neighbour.

The judge assured her that the neighbour was not angry with her, but was just out of pocket.

Judge Farish said she had to decide whether the woman should be committed as a special patient, or simply as a patient under the Mental Health Act which would give the doctors more options in transitioning her back into the community.

The woman had been held at the Christchurch Women’s Prison for a long time and then at a mental health unit.

But she was now seen as a low risk of behaving in that way again. She had no drug or alcohol issues and she had positive supports within the community. She had good insight into her illness and was known to seek help when she became unwell.

She was now stable on her medication, and was seen as a low risk of causing harm to herself or others.

Judge Farish opted for the less restrictive placement which would enable doctors to work towards placing her back into the community, with support.

“But this time, hopefully nobody will change your medication,” she said.