Unique to the Neighbourhood Justice Centre, the Problem Solving Process assists offenders to break the cycle of offending through practical activities, and restorative relations.

Problem Solving is a voluntary, out-of-court process that promotes positive change through collaborative group processes.

It is a brief, intensive intervention that supports participation in recovery and rehabilitation activities, and programs that promote behaviour change to reduce offending.

The process is an option available to all clients, however it is mostly used where significant ongoing complexity and obstacles to progress are present in a person’s life, and can be activated at any point during a person’s contact with the justice system, from the point of being charged to the end of a sentence.

Being a collaborative process, it brings together the relevant people and makes the most of everyone’s participation.

Voluntary and consent based, Problem Solving is organised and facilitated by an independent convenor.

Context

The NJC Court hears matters in the criminal and civil jurisdiction of the Magistrate’s Court of Victoria, including Family Violence and Personal Safety intervention order applications.

The court is also a venue for the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal and the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal. The Children’s Court (Criminal Division) also sits at the NJC.

Complex matters that come before one jurisdiction of the court, for example the adult Criminal Division, at times cross into other jurisdictions, such as Family Violence, or Residential Tenancies. Problem Solving can assist collaborative work in a multi-jurisdictional court environment.

The Client Services team, comprising independent treatment and support services, also works under the roof to provide assistance to clients. Also on site, a team of Community Corrections Victoria manages post-sentence support and supervision of people serving orders in the community.

Staff of these teams often engage in Problem Solving, as do community health and welfare agencies, and legal and other professionals working in the local community.

Problem Solving encourages the participation of family members and friends in the process. Where there is current family violence, Problem Solving can assist, however a different process is used

How Problem Solving works

There are four stages in Problem Solving: referral, assessment, meeting, and return to court.

1   Referral

Clients are referred to the Problem Solving convenor, the Neighbourhood Justice Officer (NJO).

Individuals may self-refer, but most often professionals make referrals and the Magistrate also commonly refers accused persons for assessment.

A referral simply involves approaching the NJO in person or via email.

In most circumstances a formal plea of guilty precedes a referral. It can also be made around the time of bail applications.

A person who has been sentenced to a Community Corrections Order, and is at risk of breaching (or has breached) that order, may also be referred to the process.

A person who has completed a custodial sentence and is returning to the community may also access Problem Solving.

2   Assessment

Problem Solving generally seeks to assist people experiencing complex unmet need who are as a result, at higher risk of poor psychosocial and justice outcomes.

When assessing suitability for Problem Solving the threshold is deliberately set at a level that minimizes barriers to participation for people with complex needs.

Assessment involves a brief meeting between the referred person and the convenor. If the referred person has matters active before the court, then his or her legal representative will also participate in the assessment.

The convenor explains the steps involved, careful to establish that the client is fully informed and understands how Problem Solving works.

At the same time, the convenor assesses the client for any presentation that suggests major barriers to frank and constructive participation in the process, for example, heavy intoxication, or the presence of significant untreated psychiatric disturbance (such as psychotic symptoms).

Where clients present with issues that might compromise their ability to participate in the process, they are referred to treatment to stabilise the symptom,  and invited to return for another assessment at a suitable time.

Once satisfied that a client is able to give informed consent to participating in Problem Solving, the convenor invites the client and his or her lawyer to discuss the option in private and then communicate their decision on whether to proceed back to the convenor.

Where a person decides to proceed, the convenor works together with him or her to decide on a list of invitees for the Problem Solving Meeting (PSM). For a matter still before the court, the client’s legal representative is required to attend the PSM, as are the client and the convenor. Apart from that, the convenor is guided by the client in identifying the people to invite to the PSM.

3   Meeting

PSMs are held at a time convenient to all parties. The convenor facilitates all aspects of the meeting and is responsible for any reporting that arises from the meeting.

Importantly, Problem Solving is supported by a protocol agreed to by all key justice stakeholders at the NJC which is incorporated into the Court Manual. The process follows guidelines that accord with that agreement.[1]

At commencement, the convenor reiterates the principles that underpin the meeting and expectations of the participants, specifically: 

  • participation is voluntary

  • the discussion is confidential. The only exceptions to that confidentiality are -

    • the normal exceptions related to actual or threat of harm to self or other; and

    • anything that participants agree by consensus may be reported back to the court 

  • the role of the convenor is to facilitate the meeting from beginning to end 

  • everyone is expected to participate in particular the referred person.

Meetings usually last around 90 minutes and follow a standardised format. 

Each meeting is a unique expression of participants collaboration, and generates an ‘in time’ shared understanding of the problems impacting on the client’s life. By 'in time', is meant that the outcomes generated by collaborating parties at the same time and then being available to inform the justice process with relevant and current information.

Exploring problems leads to suggestions and ideas that can support change. These contributions are written on a board by the convenor towards the end of meetings for participants to discuss, and participants refine these statements until some or all are adopted by consensus. 

These statements become the formal meeting outcomes, each participant gets a copy, and the meeting is closed.

It is very rare for PSMs not to generate outcomes; on average, each meeting generates four outcomes.

4   Return to court

The report from a meeting is provided to the court and to participants. The report contains the following information.

  • Who referred the matter to Problem Solving
  • Who participated
  • That the client attended and engaged in the discussion
  • How long the meeting took
  • A brief statement of the problem(s) that informed the referral
  • The outcomes

The convenor is present in court when the matter returns.

Implementation experience

Problem solving is integrated into the operations of the Neighbourhood Justice Centre, and all justice stakeholders can access it, and in the ten year history of the NJC, have consistently done so.

While Problem Solving’s effect on overall justice outcomes may be difficult to measure, it plays its role in progressing broad NJC goals such as increasing successful completion rates of people serving correctional orders in the community.[2]

Baseline data also reveals other noteworthy patterns in Problem Solving:

  • It attracts very high participation levels among people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (52% of all participants).
  • 85% of referrals are people who have not been sentenced, and 50% of Magistrate referrals are initiated by lawyers, suggesting strong buy-in from legal practitioners.
  • 51% of people referred have as one of their charges a breach of a previous court order, indicating that Problem Solving is a useful response to recidivist offending and has buy-in from community corrections.
  • Up to half of all professionals attending Problem Solving meetings come from outside the NJC, indicating local service sector interest in and acceptance of the process.[3]

Practice observations

Problem Solving supports a range of goals.

For the referred person, it can:

  • Help short-circuit negative patterns of behaviour
  • Model problem solving and participatory decision making
  • Generate actions to move forward with and simplify the logistics of taking action
  • Transform problem-saturated narratives into stepwise, achievable goal statements
  • Restore a sense of personal efficacy
  • Restore working relationships with professionals participating, and build unity of goals
  • Restore relationships with family and other support people

For justice stakeholders it can help by:

  • Informing the Magistrate of the current context of a referred person’s participation in support and treatment.
  • Strengthen links between the court, social and community support agencies and the referred person
  • Create consistency and a strong sense of ‘being on the same page’ among service providers
  • Save time and costs associated for all involved
  • Build confidence and trust in the justice system by utilising transparent and participatory processes
  • Create opportunities for the restoration of positive and constructive worker-client relationships where those relationships are not at their best.

Adapting the process to other courts

Problem Solving is an intervention convened by a facilitator, in the case of the NJC, the Neighbourhood Justice Officer, who is a member of the court team.

The facilitator models independence, impartiality and fairness in the conduct of PSMs.

The process is delivered according to principles of:

  • parity
  • the protection of legal rights
  • in keeping with a collaborative problem solving ethos.

The process, like the skills of the facilitator, are of course transferable through training and mentoring.

 


[1]Jordens, J., Richardson, E., (2014) Collaborative Problem Solving in a Community Court Setting, Journal of Judicial Administration, 23 JJA 253; Guidelines (attach/link).

[2] Reference evaluation.

[3] Jay Jordens, ‘The collaborative problem solving project: ten years on at the NJC’, (paper presented to) The Second International Conference on Non-Adversarial Justice: Integrating Theory and Practice, Sydney, April 2017.