Fourth year law student, James had painted an image of courts being a systematic place of precedents and rationales but after his Justice Journey with the Courts Innovation Program, he’s now been exposed to the emotional consideration and rehabilitation targeting offenders on an individual level.

Therapeutic jurisprudence-the term given to the “study of the role of the law as a therapeutic agent”. It focuses on the law’s impact on emotional life and on the psychological well-being of the individual. It is this concept that ultimately underpins the Courts Innovation Program (CIP), according to director Angela Moy.

The first day of my placement began with meeting the Courts Innovation Program.

The first day of my placement began with meeting Angela. We discussed the innovation programs and their role in providing context for certain individuals who had other factors influencing offending behaviour. The process is available to defendants on bail or who have been sentenced to a good behaviour bond, with a ‘contributing cause’ to their crime. This surprised me as it encompassed problematic substance use, mental illness, impaired decision making capabilities and homelessness (or risk of homelessness).

Four years into studying law at university has always painted an image of courts being a systematic place of precedents and rationales, not of emotional consideration and rehabilitation. Angela explained that this is done through a variety of groups under the CIP including the Drug and Alcohol Assessment Referral (DAAR) and the Murri Court. Of particular interest was the Specialist High Risk Youth Court in Townsville that Angela helped establish as a means of helping the Magistrate to become more familiar with young Indigenous repeat offenders. The Magistrate has a deeper understanding of the cultural context in Townsville and has shifted focus from penalty to therapy.

Angela explained that specialist courts, including the Domestic Violence Court in Southport, lead to specialist magistrates who have ‘the whole picture’ when it comes to sentencing and who develop better communication with offenders and victims (in relation to Domestic Violence). After this, I was sent off to the Brisbane Magistrates Arrests Court to learn more about DAAR and the court diversion program.

Drug and Alcohol Assessment Referral (DAAR)/ Illicit Drug Diversion

At the busy Magistrates Arrests Court, Melanie Keating showed me the office in which thousands of defendants have passed through in relation to substance abuse. The small office uses programs such as the Queensland Integrated Court Referrals (QICR), DAAR and Illicit Drug Court Diversion to help offenders, either on bail or sentenced to good behaviour bonds, find rehabilitation through education and medical service providers.

I spent the afternoon shadowing tasks which included filling out application forms and contacting other offices for updates on the progress for clients. After an hour a man was brought in by his lawyer to apply for a DAAR as he was caught with 3.5 grams of Heroin. He was looking to plead guilty and seek therapy. After he left, I followed Melanie into one of the court rooms where the man was being tried in front of the Magistrate. Melanie walked towards the Magistrate’s Associate and handed over the DAAR application. After a guilty plea was entered and the matter was heard, the Magistrate turned his attention towards the form, referencing it as a reason for not issuing a term of imprisonment and instead a good behaviour bond (the completion of the DAAR program). A significant fine was also given. In stature the man seemed friendly and determined to make a change in his life and it surprised me how these factors were taken into consideration. The man was given another opportunity to find therapy.

Chatting with staff from DAAR Chatting with staff from DAAR.

Later in the morning a Salvation Army representative for the Arrests Court, brought in a man who was well known by the all of the staff as having a long-running addiction to alcohol. By midday the man was already heavily intoxicated. Melanie and the Salvation Army rep tried their best to make sure he would answer his phone when the service providers for his rehabilitation called but the man was more concerned with his bus fare to get home. Once he left, Melanie explained that she had assisted this man through the various court programs over a number of years and that he would only now be given proper treatment and consideration for his alcohol addiction thanks to the DAAR factoring in alcohol use as well as drug use. She reflected that after 15 years of working with defendants with substance abuse problems that “an addiction to alcohol is far more destructive and harder to rehabilitate than an addiction to heroin”. The difference between the two men I saw in the office and in court affirmed this.

Data entry and Drug Court

Discussing the support services behind QICR, DAAR, QMERIT and the Drug Court with Katherine.Discussing the support services behind QICR, DAAR, QMERIT and the Drug Court with Katherine.

Returning to the George Street Magistrates Court, I spent some time with Katherine shadowing administrative tasks for QICR, DAAR, the Queensland Magistrates Early Referral In to Treatment (QMERIT) and Illicit Drug Court diversion. I followed up on appointments that were missed and made sure information in the application matched the police summary QP9 form. I was then introduced to Wayne who has worked for the courts since 1982. Wayne’s responsibility is to ensure the system that manages all of the information for the CIP is correct and up to date. Shadowing his role gave me an understanding of how data that is entered each day is handled and subsequently sent to magistrates. Leigh has the responsibility of evaluating the programs and, by using scholarly sources of data, improving the system. The process takes a significant amount of planning, with each step of the evaluation process marked on a database graph. I found it very interesting that community expectations are at the forefront of evaluation in order to make sure the public has faith in the success of therapeutic programs. The use of academic thought in planning was very impressive from a law student’s point of view where precedents and ancient principles are usually the sources that inform the court procedure.

Murri Court

The Murri Court was established in 2002 and is designed to give magistrates more context to the underlying behaviours contributing to Indigenous people who offend. Murri Court aims to change the view of the law within Indigenous communities from being authoritative to rehabilitative. This includes adapting the court to incorporate culture and tradition, as well as Elders being involved throughout the process. Renee, coordinator for Murri Court said that Murri Court has changed in recent years to become a process of rehabilitation that defendants, Elders and magistrates take time to consider whether the investment will achieve the best outcome for those involved. I found it interesting that health checks are regularly done to check for physical or mental impediments that might affect a defendant’s behaviour. Renee spoke of one man who had serious hearing issues that were never addressed because of lack of access to medical treatment in his remote community. After being given a hearing aid the man was able to understand what the magistrate was asking of him and felt much more comfortable in the setting. What this all linked back to was the need for magistrates to understand more about the offender’s personal circumstances in order to deliver sentences that are just and appropriate.

Domestic Violence Court

For my second day of placement I learned more about the Domestic Violence (DV) Court diversion program from Rob. He explained that Australia’s first specialist domestic violence court had opened in Southport, allowing for more services than a standard domestic violence court has, such as safe rooms, support services and specialist prosecutors/ magistrates. A major goal for establishing this court was to change the way DV matters are handled by those involved (like the Police), to have DV viewed as a mainstream crime, and to keep a track of the severity of certain offenders. By having specialist magistrates in place, the victim feels more supported throughout the process. The court is currently being reviewed which, if successful, will recommend an increase in government funding to establish more of these courts across the state.

Rob highlighted the link to the idea of therapeutic jurisprudence by giving magistrates more context for just and appropriate sentencing. Rob’s passion for reducing domestic violence matters showed me just how important these matters are to the court work force who I felt all had a personal attachment to ensuring their clients are given fair, contextualised justice.

James learnt about the personal circumstances that can affect someone's offending behaviour. James learnt about the personal circumstances that can affect someone's offending behaviour.

On my second day I was back at the Magistrates Arrests Court to find hardly any cases being heard, something I found strange for the day after Easter Monday. I spent most of the morning with Kelt, QICR Facilitator, shadowing more data entry and learning more about the QICR program as there were no assessments undertaken that day. Just before lunch, a man who Kelt had helped through sentencing for a serious drug offence entered the office. The man was at court to see a Justice of the Peace and had been clean for months. The conversation mainly revolved around the man’s prospects of marrying a Nigerian woman he had never met in person. Kelt suggested his client should exercise caution as -there are many overseas internet dating scams. The man was thankful for the advice and left confident that he would be careful. Kelt told me that the man had suffered an abusive childhood, and had been a ward of the state since his early childhood as a result of his mother’s drug habit. He was 38 years old and had spent a total of 18 years in prison for various crimes. He had also contracted Hepatitis in prison. The man had been institutionalised his whole life and had no family support. The QICR program had successfully linked him to therapeutic services that had assisted him greatly, and the QICR Facilitators had created a relationship with him where he could visit, speak openly and seek guidance. It is this form of communication that really showed me how the law can be something more than the black letter, taking personal circumstances into consideration to understand why people commit crimes. More importantly, the focus is on what it will take to rehabilitate defendants to address their causal issues to assist them to cease offending. Although I only spent days in the courts and cannot evaluate the success rate of the Courts Innovation Program, the fact that the arrests court was empty for most of the day after a day public holiday suggests that rehabilitation rather than punishment may be the key to lowering crime and reducing repeat offenders.