Responsive and appropriate justice
The Neighbourhood Justice Centre's Magistrates Court dedicates one day a month to matters involving Aboriginal clients.
Operating within the court and legal frameworks, Aboriginal Hearing Day responds to the cultural and therapeutic needs of the Aboriginal community. The day delivers:
Increased appearance rates (and a correlating reduction in the number of warrants issued for non-attendance)
Increased confidence in the centre’s Magistrates’ Court
Increased participation in treatment programs.
Aboriginal Hearing Day in practice
In the lead up to the day, the centre’s Koori* Justice Worker (a member of the Aboriginal community who works solely with Aboriginal clients) conducts community outreach to encourage court attendance. The KJW also liaises with support workers and service agencies, who in turn disseminate information about the day, and prompt their clients to attend.
The Koori Justice Worker and representatives from Registry, Client Services, Correctional Services, and appropriate agencies, prepare for court at a planning meeting.
Preparation involves reviewing of the court list, identifying issues or events in the Aboriginal community that may affect attendance, and organising the services that will be required.
*Koori People are first Australians from Victoria and New South Wales. The term Koori is their preferred title and expresses pride in their heritage and place.
On the day
The Magistrate understands the cultural contexts for Aboriginal clients, and the court welcomes the involvement of the Aboriginal community in the court process. For example, as part of the sentencing the Magistrate invites contributions from community members who attend to support the client.
The Koori Justice Work is in court at all times to provide clients and their families with support, information, and assistance with engaging treatment and other services.
The need for an Aboriginal Hearing Day
In 2008 the Neighbourhood Justice Centre identified gaps in its successful delivery of accessible justice and services to the local Aboriginal community. The Centre found:
low attendance rates at court
representation from the local Aboriginal legal service was not coordinated, overstretched, and had competing demands from other courts
local Koori community was not accessing services at the Centre.
Aboriginal Hearing Day resolves these issues. The model enables the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service to consolidate its services, and the Centre builds links with the local Koori community in line with its community engagement approach to assisting people to break the cycle of offending and addressing systemic social disadvantage.
The Aboriginal Hearing Day is best understood by examining the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system and related reforms to address this issue, alongside the development of ‘community justice’.
Aboriginal Australians are over-represented in the criminal justice system, including contact with police, the court system, juvenile justice centres and correctional facilities.
The overwhelming reason for Aboriginal peoples’ over-representation in the criminal justice system is their social, economic and cultural disadvantage, and point reflected in the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recognising that “Aboriginal people were generally disadvantaged in their ability and opportunity to present a case against their imprisonment.”
Aboriginal Hearing Day is underpinned by therapeutic jurisprudence. That is, the day focuses on the quality of the interaction between the Magistrate and the people who come before the court, with an emphasis on empathy and communication.
Therapeutic jurisprudence contests that the court has the potential to make a positive impact on a person’s life, both physically and psychologically. And this, on a broad scale, can contribute to positive social change.
Giving victims and offenders a voice, and taking time to listen, the consequences on all participants, including the justice system overall, can be profound. While this principle is true of the NJC’s clients in general, it has particular resonance for the Aboriginal community.
"We're replacing negative experiences with more positive ones. We're trust with clients so they way: “yes, I'm in the court and with police but it is ok”. W're breaking down the barriers and stereotypes and fears."
NJC, Koori Justice Worker
Comparison to the Koori Court
The Aboriginal Hearing Day is founded on similar principles to those that underpin the community building aims of the Koori Court.
Unlike the Koori Court, Respected Elders are not a feature of the Aboriginal Hearing Day. However, as with other sentencing approaches at the NJC, sentencing conversations are a key component of the Aboriginal Hearing Day. Sentencing conversations involve a dialogue with the client, his or her family, the support services and the Koori Justice Worker. The purpose of sentencing conversations is to
- gain the client’s commitment to the outcome, particularly if there is a therapeutic component to the sentence (e.g. with a Community Based Order)
- increase understanding and acceptance of the sentence and strengthen the likelihood of the therapeutic component of a sentencing outcome being supported by the client, their family and their support network.