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At your service - a guide to the Magistrates’ Court services and programs

Cover Story

Cite as: (2003) 77(8) LIJ, p.32

The Magistrates' Court of Victoria has responded to the changing needs of the community by implementing various programs and services.

By Jelena Popovic

A number of services and programs have been implemented by the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria to assist magistrates in making appropriate decisions, diverting first offenders from involvement in the criminal justice system and minimising harm to the community by reducing further offending. Practitioners who seek to use the individual services are urged to contact those services as early as possible to ensure that the best possible reports and recommendations are prepared for hearings. Court services cannot respond immediately to requests, except in urgent circumstances.

Contact details for all Court services staff are available on the Court’s website at http://www.magistratescourt.vic.gov.au.

Aboriginal Liaison Officer

The position of Aboriginal liaison officer arose from the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement which recommended:

“The establishment of a Koori Liaison Officer Program is a priority for the Magistrates’ Court network in areas of significant Aboriginal communities (similar to existing disability and psychiatric liaison officer positions). The first position/s should be located at the Melbourne Court and then implemented across the state”.[1]

The objectives of the position are:

  • identification of specific needs/issues pertaining to individual Aboriginal offenders;
  • the amassing of information relating to individual Aboriginal offenders to enable a sentencer to make a better informed decision in relation to disposition;
  • community liaison;
  • police liaison;
  • service liaison;
  • proactive community involvement to reduce representation of Aboriginal persons in the criminal justice system;
  • liaison with regional Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committees; and
  • assistance in the ongoing professional development of magistrates in regard to Aboriginal issues.

Bail Advocacy Program

The Magistrates’ Court has become increasingly aware that a significant number of offenders who ought to be released on bail are being denied this because of social factors such as homelessness, lack of support and lack of treatment.

After consultation with the Office of the Corrective Services Commissioner, the Bail Advocacy Program began in January 2001 in an endeavour to put before the Court appropriate bail proposals for people applying for bail.

The program’s services include:

  • interviewing and assessing applicant remandees who wish to make a bail application;
  • provision of advice and the formulation of a detailed plan of accommodation, treatment and other relevant support services in respect of applicants for bail;
  • facilitation of contact with the families and friends of bail applicants in order to secure support for the applicants while they are on bail;
  • development and maintenance of linkages to appropriate accommodation placements within the community and government agencies;
  • initiation and facilitation of linkages and access for defendants with mental health services, disability services and drug treatment agencies as required;
  • liaison and collaboration with the juvenile justice, disability, the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health (Forensicare) and court referral and evaluation for drug intervention and treatment (CREDIT) officers attached to the Court;
  • provision of advocacy and education for persons on bail; and
  • development of community partnerships and programs.

Community Corrections – Court Services Unit – Melbourne Magistrates’ Court

This Unit provides immediate and pre-sentence assessment reports to the Magistrates’ and County Courts, and, on some occasions, the Supreme Court. These assessments determine suitability in relation to community based orders, intensive correction orders and combined custody and treatment orders, as requested by the courts. Such assessments include recommendations regarding appropriate program conditions to reflect the specific and individual needs of the defendant.

The Unit provides verbal or written advice to the Court (and information to legal representatives) in relation to existing clients subject to statutory orders supervised by Community Correctional Services. This includes the defendant’s general progress and compliance, and advice regarding the status of parolees appearing before the Court.

The Unit liaises with magistrates, judges, legal and court personnel and parallel services staff to coordinate advice and services for high-risk defendants and defendants with multiple, complex or special needs.

The Unit prosecutes defendants who breach any of the above orders. It can accommodate prosecutions from any community correctional service location in Victoria to facilitate consolidations and expedite breach proceedings. The Unit often coordinates breach proceedings as negotiated by either the Court or legal representatives by arranging consolidations. Service delivery in such cases involves the service of the charge sheet or arranging for warrants to be located and executed “on the day”.

Court Referral and Evaluation for Drug Intervention and Treatment (CREDIT)

CREDIT aims to:

  • provide early treatment when the alleged offender is first arrested;
  • implement drug treatment by way of bail conditions while the alleged offender is awaiting disposition of the case;
  • develop a commitment on the part of the alleged offender to rehabilitation by capitalising on the immediacy of the arrest and confrontation with the impact of the alleged offending at the time of arrest and release on bail;
  • divert substance-abusing offenders from incarceration;
  • reduce the risk of further offending; and
  • minimise the harm to both the offender and community by addressing the issues related to substance abuse.

The program is aimed at defendants arrested for non-violent offences who:

  • have a demonstrable drug problem;
  • are at risk of committing further offences while on bail;
  • are at risk of harming themselves or others;
  • would normally be released on bail; and
  • are suitable for drug treatment.

Defendants who meet the criteria are bailed to the next court sitting day where they are assessed by a court-based drug clinician. There is no requirement for a plea to be entered. The clinician identifies and arranges the appropriate treatment. The defendant is bailed to a suitable date on the condition that he or she complies with the requirements of the CREDIT program. The magistrate who hears the remand application remains involved in the case until the CREDIT episode is completed, which is in most cases the time when the plea is heard and the matter determined.

CREDIT works in conjunction with all police diversionary drug programs as part of the general armoury of options (including the Children’s Court Clinic Drug Program).[2]

Criminal Justice Diversion Program

Section 128A of the Magistrates’ Court Act 1989 sets out the legislative requirements of the diversion program.

The Court conducts the diversion proceedings in open court with taping to ensure accountability and transparency. The process, although informal by usual court standards, is sufficiently formal to emphasise the solemnity of the situation and the offending behaviour.

Diversion will only be considered where there is sufficient evidence to support a conviction and the offender indicates an intention to plead guilty.

The purposes of the program are:

  • to prevent re-offending;
  • to avoid the first criminal conviction;
  • to assist with rehabilitation;
  • to use community resources for appropriate counselling or treatment;
  • to ensure that appropriate reparation is made to the victim of the offence; and
  • where appropriate, to tender an apology to the victim either by letter or in person.

Any offence triable summarily may be dealt with by diversion although, as a matter of practicality, violent and sexual offences are considered too serious and are deemed unsuitable for diversion.

The procedure is that the offender is charged and bailed or is served with a summons to appear in court in the usual manner.

If the offender is recommended for diversion, the program is fully explained to the offender by the magistrate on the return date. This process takes place away from the formal courtroom, with or without lawyers but including the offender’s family and any friends in support. If unrepresented, the offender is given the opportunity to discuss the proposed diversion program with a solicitor.

A diversion program is individually structured taking into account a variety of considerations, namely, the age of the offender, his or her financial means, the nature of the allegations and the special circumstances of any victim.

The program requirements take many forms but can comprise an apology to the victim by way of a letter or in person, compensation or restitution to the victim, counselling and treatment, community work, a defensive driving course etc.

The offender must agree to the requirements of diversion. Written advice of the requirements and consent to these must be in writing. The matter is then adjourned to allow the offender time to comply with the requirements of diversion. If the offender satisfactorily complies with the requirements the matter does not proceed to court.

By agreement with Victoria Police, the matter will not be recorded as part of the person’s criminal history report that is made available for external purposes. It is recorded in a similar manner to cautions to enable police to monitor those who have previously received a diversion.

If an offender does not comply with the requirements of diversion the charge will be dealt with in the normal manner.

Disability Services Coordinator

The Court has become increasingly aware of its duty to respond to the special needs and circumstances of people with disabilities.

The role of the disabilities officers is to:

  • develop and manage a range of disability programs and provide advice to magistrates and court officials;
  • identify as soon as possible whether or not a person charged has a relevant disability;
  • provide advice and reports to the Court on courses of action open to it for the appropriate disposition of the offender or the charges, as the case may be;
  • consult, negotiate and liaise with government, non-government agencies and professionals in the community to ensure appropriate and coordinated service delivery and to promote knowledge of the issues relating to the protection of persons with a disability;
  • facilitate the implementation of appropriate procedures to protect the alleged offender if placed in custody or detention while on remand or sentence; and
  • report on the effectiveness of the operation of the Magistrates’ Court criminal system in respect of disabled offenders.

The Court, by being better informed of the needs of persons before it and the services that might be organised to address those needs, now has much closer links with relevant service providers and is in a better position to access the services.

Enforcement Review Project (ERP)

The ERP identifies and assists members of the community with special needs, such as those who are suffering from physical illness, psychiatric illness, intellectual disability, chronic substance abuse, acquired brain injury, personality disorders or multiple co-morbidities, who have amassed multiple fine enforcements which have progressed to enforcement stage.

The ERP officer can assist by preparing the documents which establish that the fine defaulter possesses the special circumstances required under Schedule 7, cl 10A of the Magistrates’ Court Act 1989 to be released from the payment of the fine.

A letter is required from a professional who has been treating or counselling the fine defaulter, setting out the diagnosis, that the defaulter was suffering from the diagnosed condition at the time of the offence and the defaulter’s current condition.

The application for revocation and all accompanying material should be forwarded to the ERP officer at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court for determination. The ERP officer will link the outstanding fines the client has at enforcement stage and collate a file with a print-out of them.

The application is then forwarded to the PERIN registrars for determination/revocation of enforcement order. Once the application is granted by the registrars of the PERIN Court, copies of reports which form the basis of an application for revocation will be made available to the prosecuting agencies to assist agencies to properly determine whether or not to withdraw the proceedings.

If the case is heard in “open court” and the defendant is found guilty of committing the offence, the “special circumstances” can be taken into consideration by the Court when imposing sentence.

Juvenile Justice Liaison Service

The juvenile justice liaison officers assist the Magistrates’ Court in relation to offenders aged between 17 and 21 years.

They provide detailed qualitative information to the Court about young people appearing but also seek to intervene at the time of the young person’s first court appearance to ensure that personal issues that may lead to further offending are addressed before sentence.

The service provides:

  • timely pre-sentence reports for young offenders being considered for Youth Training Centre orders that would obviate the need for lengthy remand into the adult prison system;
  • advice on accommodation, programs or counselling and treatment that might be available as conditions of bail for young offenders who might other wise be remanded into the adult prison system;
  • accurate and timely information to magistrates in respect of remissions or parole that might apply to any period of detention a young offender might be undergoing at time of sentence;
  • information about eligibility for parole or treatment in progress for a young offender undergoing sentence and what effect a cumulative sentence might have on eligibility for parole and current programs or treatment;
  • supervision and referral to appropriate agencies while young persons are on bail; and
  • appropriate supervision, treatment and counselling for young offenders whose matters are to be dealt with by the County Court from the time of their first appearance in the Magistrates’ Court to the time of sentence in the County Court.

Juvenile justice officers liaise with the disability coordinator, Community Corrections, bail coordinator, CREDIT clinicians and Forensicare personnel to provide a coordinated response to each individual offender.

Mental Health Court Liaison Service

The service is provided on-site at Melbourne, Ringwood (which services Heidelberg and Preston), Dandenong-Frankston and Broadmeadows-Sunshine Courts by an experienced senior registered psychiatric nurse, together with on-call back-up from a consultant forensic psychiatrist.

The primary objectives of this service are to:

  • reduce the incidence of psychiatric illness in the prison system by facilitating the diversion of mentally ill offenders into appropriate psychiatric treatment services;
  • reduce rates of recidivism in mentally ill offenders through facilitating access to appropriate psychiatric treatment services; and
  • reduce the number of people remanded in prison custody for the purpose of psychiatric assessment.

Practitioners are able to take advantage of this initial on-site mental health assessment of defendants which will determine whether the defendants are suffering from a mental illness, provide advice and arrange links to appropriate community mental health services. This assessment can at times reduce the need for defendants to be remanded for custody for court-ordered psychiatric assessments. This service is, however, not intended to be a substitute for a post-sentence court-ordered forensic psychiatric report.

The service has been extended to courts at Ballarat, Geelong, Bendigo, Shepparton and Moe.

Case study one - CREDIT program assessment

A solicitor was concerned about his client who was in the cells and presenting with auditory hallucinations. A referral was made to the psychiatric nurse to assess psychiatric issues and to make inquiries in relation to previous contact with psychiatric services. The client was seen in the Melbourne Custody Centre immediately.

A preliminary diagnosis was that the psychosis appeared to be drug induced but this could not be properly ascertained until the client had undergone drug withdrawal.

A referral was then made to the bail coordinator to assess needs in relation to a bail application. The bail program made a further referral to the CREDIT program for an assessment. The client was remanded until the next day in order that the Court could be provided with an assessment outcome and treatment recommendation.

Residential withdrawal and individual pre and post-withdrawal individual counselling was arranged. The client was remanded for two weeks. The client’s treatment was reviewed and discussed, as were further treatment options such as supported accommodation. A lengthy court report was prepared which included information in relation to past and present drug use, medical, psychiatric and psycho-social issues, treatment progress and advice by the psychiatric nurse that the auditory hallucinations had ceased.

Over the following three months, the client was reviewed at court with updated reports being provided for counsel, prosecution and the Court. The CREDIT clinician deemed the CREDIT episode had been completed successfully. The client pleaded guilty and was placed on a community based order (CBO), which was considered to be more likely to be completed as a treatment regime had been established, drug use was being controlled and accommodation had been stabilised. A CBO might not have appeared a viable sentencing option to the presiding magistrate had the client not been able to avail himself of the programs offered at court. It became evident that the auditory hallucinations were a result of the client’s amphetamine use.

Case study two - Use of liaison officers

A 20-year-old Aboriginal offender was referred to the community corrections officer (CCO) for an assessment for an intensive corrections order (ICO).

The CCO had concerns that an ICO would be too difficult for the client to complete and consulted with the Aboriginal liaison officer (ALO) and the juvenile justice officer (JJO) who identified various factors influencing the client’s behaviour. A further referral was made to the bail program in relation to accommodation needs.

The client had been assessed as suitable to undergo an ICO, but together with this assessment, a further report was provided outlining an alternative approach, namely a deferred sentence under s86 of the Sentencing Act with supervision by the JJO and ALO and appropriate linkages to Koori organisations.

After consideration, the magistrate adjourned the matter on a deferred sentence. The client responded well to the supervision and was ultimately placed on an adjourned undertaking with conviction to enable him to continue attending the various programs he had been linked into.

In this instance, the initial referral for the ICO assessment was made by the magistrate (under the Sentencing Act an assessment must be obtained by the magistrate before an offender is placed on an ICO or community based order).


JELENA POPOVIC is Deputy Chief Magistrate and, as such, oversees the provision of Court programs and services. She has been a Victorian magistrate for 14 years and has an interest in therapeutic jurisprudence.


[1] Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement, 2000, at 43.

[2] Carl Scuderi, “Diversion program for young drug users in Victoria” (2003) 77(5) LIJ 36.

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