A former federal court judge will investigate the shocking death of Ann Marie Smith, an Adelaide woman with cerebral palsy who police say died in “disgusting and degrading” conditions last month.
The NDIS minister, Stuart Robert, on Tuesday confirmed Alan Robertson SC would lead an investigation into the adequacy of the regulation of the supports and services provided to Smith, whose death has provoked outrage across the country and calls from Labor for an independent investigation.
Smith’s death is already the focus of a South Australian police manslaughter investigation, which the force launched after detectives were shocked by the conditions in which she was found. The 54-year-old was receiving full-time care, but police have alleged she had been left in a cane chair for more than a year.
No charges have been laid, but Smith’s carer has been sacked by the NDIS provider Integrity Care. The provider has also been fined $12,000 by the NDIS watchdog, the Quality and Safeguards Commission.
On Tuesday, Robert said Smith’s death was “absolutely shocking” and vowed the “circumstances that led to her death must never be allowed to happen again”.
The inquiry will examine the “adequacy of the regulation of the supports and services provided to Ms Smith, including regulation in relation to quality and safeguarding pursuant to the functions and powers of the commissioner of the NDIS Commission”.
“It is important to note the review is to be conducted in a manner that avoids prejudice to any pending or current criminal or civil proceedings,” Robert said.
“I welcome and fully support the actions of the NDIS commissioner and the comprehensive terms of reference established for this inquiry.”
On 6 April, Smith died at the Royal Adelaide hospital from septic shock, multiple organ failures from severe pressure sores, and malnourishment.
A South Australian parliamentary inquiry heard on Monday Smith’s carer appeared not to have been screened by her employer until after her death. Integrity Care had also failed four performance audits in 2017, the inquiry was told. The carer had been banned from working for one state government agency, officials said.
The independent inquiry was announced as Robert faced criticism from Labor’s NDIS spokesman, Bill Shorten, who had called for an independent inquiry and said it was not good enough to “blithely handball” the case to the commission, particularly if its own role needed to be scrutinised.
In a statement that outlined his knowledge of the case, Robert said on Tuesday the investigation to be led by Robertson was announced by the quality and safeguards commissioner, Graeme Head.
Robert said the NDIA Act meant he had been prevented from directing the NDIS commissioner “in relation to a particular individual or provider” and that the commission’s independence was “integral”.
“I was first briefed on the tragic death of Ms Smith on 14 May 2020,” he said. “Since this time, the NDIS commissioner has kept me informed of the proposed course of action.”
In response to Shorten’s criticisms and calls for an inquiry, Robert was quoted by the Sydney Morning Herald last week as saying it was “disappointing Bill Shorten chooses to use the tragic deaths of people with disability to make cheap political points”.
The disability royal commission chair, Ronald Sackville, said last week Smith’s treatment and death would form part of the inquiry’s work.
Anyone with information about Smiths’s death has been urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 800 333 000 or report online at www.crimestopperssa.com.au.