The Neighbourhood Justice Centre's 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.
Getting people to court
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.
On the day
The Magistrate understands the cultural contexts for Aboriginal clients, and engages clients in dialogue, rather than simply speaking through the person’s legal representative.
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.
Aboriginal legal representation
The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service provides legal representation.
Victoria Legal Aid and Fitzroy Legal Services, the primary providers of legal services at the centre, also provide legal assistance.
In the early stages of the centre’s history, court attendance rates for Aboriginal offenders were poor, and there was a corresponding lack of engagement in the centre’s other services.
In addition, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) was stretched across many courts.
In response, Registrars proposed to VALS the Aboriginal Hearing Day as a solution that would meet the specific needs of clients, and assist VALS to take a concentrated and methodical approach to working at the centre.
The model has operated for around eight years, a testament to its success.
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.