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Supporting people through “mystifying” court system

Supporting people through “mystifying” court system

By Karin Derkley

Access to Justice Courts Disabled Persons 


Lawyers and magistrates need to be made disability-aware to give cognitively disabled people a more positive interaction with the justice system, a magistrate has said.

Magistrate Pauline Spencer said lawyers, prosecutors and other magistrates need education to be disability-aware and trauma-informed to recognise and respect the experience of those who find the justice system completely mystifying.

Magistrate Spencer was speaking at the online launch of Supporting Justice, a new website which gives practitioners tools and resources to help them assist clients with cognitive disabilities.

Supporting Justice was launched by the Centre of Innovative Justice (CIJ) and came out of the Enabling Justice project, a partnership with Jesuit Social Services and the Office of Public Prosecutions.

CIJ director Rob Hulls said the Enabling Justice project found that a "breathtaking" 42 per cent of men and 33 per cent of women in prisons have an acquired brain injury (ABI), and that the system was failing that group of people.

Mr Hulls said it should be “crystal clear” to policy-makers that the challenges which make people with ABIs vulnerable to disadvantage like homelessness, mental illness, poverty and unemployment also make them vulnerable to contact with the justice system.

Instead, the Enabling Justice project found "fragmented and inconsistent responses across the justice, disability and social service systems" which meant that the needs of people with disability are rarely recognised, rarely respected and rarely responded to appropriately.

Victorian Advocacy League for Individuals with Disability (VALID ) advocacy coordinator Emily Piggott agreed that the justice system is completely mystifying for many people with an intellectual disability. “You go through and you're kind of splattered with a whole lot of legal terminology and processes that are really difficult to comprehend.”

Self-advocate Dorothy Armstrong told the webinar about her terror at not being able to communicate, and of being at the mercy of people like police “who have such power”. Court professionals need to acknowledge “that the court system is their world, it's not the world mentally or physically of the people that you're seeing”, she said.

Magistrate Spencer said that hearing from people like Dorothy who have lived experience of dealing with the courts has helped provide the courts with a map for reform.

"We need to have systems in place in our courts that recognise as early as possible for that early intervention that a person has a disability that they may not even know they have themselves."

CIJ associate director Stan Winford said it is essential for legal professionals to get an understanding of how people with disability experience the system. "Because so often solutions are prescribed to people without their input."

There needs to be programs to provide referral and support across the system and also to assist in much earlier identification and recognition of the needs of people with disability, he said.

Better triage systems within the court would mean that with a few simple questions people could get the right level of support that they need at the right time, Magistrate Spencer said.

Respect for the needs of people with disabilities was an approach that didn't cost any money, she pointed out. What it requires is a change in attitude and a change of approach, she said, "and that's about respectful communication and building the ability for people to participate equally in the processes by giving them information so they can make informed decisions”.

"Asking people the simple question 'What do you need right now?' opens up a whole lot of things that you may not have even understood. And if you’re hearing and listening to what they think, that rapport opens up a whole lot of ability to work on some behavioural change.”

The Supporting Justice website contains resources to help lawyers communicate more effectively with people with disability including a preparing for court form to help people with disability better prepare for their first meeting with their lawyer, and links to other services such as the NDIS, family violence victim and witness services and to Aboriginal community controlled organisations.

Pictured above: clockwise from top left, CIJ director Rob Hulls, Magistrate Pauline Spencer, self-advocate Dorothy Armstrong and CIJ associate director Stan Winford

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