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Courts’ therapeutic approach continues during pandemic

Courts’ therapeutic approach continues during pandemic

By Karin Derkley

Access to Justice Courts 

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Victoria's specialist and mainstream courts have continued to provide therapeutic support programs during the pandemic, recently appointed Head of Division Specialist Courts Magistrate Pauline Spencer told the Criminal Law Conference.

"Even in these very difficult times, we are continuing those therapeutic approaches. The technology is there to try to help keep things running, particularly in stage four where we have to avoid participants and everyone else physically coming together."

Specialist courts and programs include the mainstream Court Integrated Services Program (CISP), the Drug Court, the Assessment Referral Courts (ARC), the Koori Courts, and the Neighbourhood Justice Centre.

Magistrate Spencer said the challenge under COVID-19 has been to ensure that people without easy access to technology were still able to be represented at the courts. The Neighbourhood Justice Centre has been providing telephones and datacards to participants during the Covid period and this is soon to be rolled out across the Magistrates’ Court, she said.

Even while WebEx, which is used by the Magistrates’ Court, is an online video conferencing tool, it also allows access via phone, she said. "Everyone can be on WebEx – the lawyers and the prosecutors and so on – and the participant can also be contacted by phone so they can link in that way."

The new arrangements are leading to potentially longer term improvements in the way specialist courts could be run in the future, Magistrate Spencer said. It has been reported that some courts and tribunals, such as the mental health tribunal, may have experienced a rise in attendance rates because participants felt more comfortable dialling in or attend via a video-link than attending the court in person.

"One magistrate told me the judicial monitoring hearings she is doing on corrections orders by phone are actually of a better quality than they were in court because the person has some privacy and not having to talk about difficult issues with the whole court behind them. So there's some potential to use the technology in that way."

In her new role, Magistrate Spencer is aiming to better integrate therapeutic approaches across both mainstream and specialist courts. "The idea is to spread the expertise of specialist supports that sit in the specialist areas across the court, and not just work in silos."

"So, whenever and at whatever point a person enters the court, we're starting to triage and assess their support needs, and then put in place the combination of supports that person needs."

The aim is for magistrates across the court to receive more comprehensive education in therapeutic justice practice from the moment of induction and "supporting magistrates in their court craft as they get more experience," Magistrate Spencer said.

However, everyone working within the criminal justice system, whether they are defence lawyers, prosecutors, court staff or security staff, has a role to play in improving the wellbeing of people who come into contact with the court, she said.

"The basic thing is this concept of procedural fairness: how do you ensure that your participant, the person you're acting for feels part of the proceeding, feels they're being heard, feels they have choice in how the proceedings go, feels respected and understands the proceedings and what's happening to them?"

That applied as much, if not more, with those involved in remote hearings as with in-court appearances, Magistrate Spencer pointed out.

"It's easier when you're able to debrief someone face-to-face, but if you can't do that how do you actually take those fundamental principles and translate that into your practice in an online environment?"

That might involve simple measures such as ensuring the magistrate can clearly see your client, and that they are well lit if they are using their phone or computer, so the magistrate has eye contact with the person, she said.

"It's about thinking through those things ahead of time and just trying to use those basic principles and translate them into practice."

Photo: Ellen McCutchan


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