About our court

Drawing on restorative and therapeutic concepts and and practices, the Neighbourhood Justice Centre's court is what we call a problem-solving court; that is, matters are conducted in ways that address the underlying conditions that play a part in offending behaviour as well as providing appropriate procedural justice.

Here's the key components of our court.

As the sum of many parts, the Neighbourhood Justice Centre is, among other things, the venue for a:

  • Magistrates’ Court
  • Children’s Court (criminal division)
  • Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal
  • Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (residential tenancy matters). 

Our court, which finalises circa 3500 to 4000 cases year in, serves:

  • Residents of the City of Yarra municipality
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (ATSI), who have a close connection to the area
  • People experiencing homelessness and alleged to have committed an offence in the municipality

Simple, direct, participatory justice

Court hearings are conducted in a way that ensure the people who come before it understand, and participate as fully as possible. To this end:

  • Hearings are conducted with as little formality and technicality as possible
  • Offenders sit at the bar table (front and centre of their hearing and in direct line of sight to the magistrate)
  • Principles of therapeutic jurisprudence and restorative justice underpin proceedings.

These legislated provisions increase citizen participation the justice process, which as studies show, improves compliance with court orders and trust in the justice process.[1]  

It's worth noting that the integrity of the model is also enshrined in legislation: a chief magistrate must appoint a magistrate who has knowledge or experience of therapeutic jurisprudence and restorative justice.

Sentencing 

When making sentencing decisions, the magistrate may gather information from anyone deemed appropriate e.g. a health service provider, a community corrections officer, the victim, or a relative of the defendant.

Deferred sentencing

As with other courts, following a finding of guilt, the magistrate has power to defer sentence for up to 12 months to allow the person to address the underlying causes of offending, among other things.  (See  s83A of the Sentencing Act 1991 (Vic) ). 

Deferring sentence is used to require the accused to access treatment and support services to address issues related to their offending, such as drug and alcohol abuse while on bail. 

Judicial monitoring reviews

As with other Magistrates' Courts in Victoria, our court uses judicial monitoring reviews to monitor persons sentenced to a community corrections order (CCO).

Simply, judicial monitoring is a series of meetings held between a magistrate and the person before the court which happen during the course of the CCO.  The NJC pioneered judicial monitoring and it's now a part of mainstream court practices.

There’s no uniformed approach to judicial monitoring and the style a court adopts depends on the purpose and context of the specific review—for instance achieving enforcement, ensuring victim safety, promoting offender accountability, or promoting offender motivation to engage in positive behavioural change. (3)

As a problem-solving court, reviews at the NJC less about compliance and more about offender rehabilitation. Our position is that focusing purely on compliance has an unhelpful punitive effect whereas addressing the root causes of offending induces positive behaviour change that lasts beyond the life of the order. 

Our approach

As with court hearings, our judicial monitoring reviews are as simple, straightforward, practical and strengths-based as possible.

The magistrate, person before the court, and the Corrections case worker meet at the bar table in the courtroom. At times, the offender's family or other supporters are invited to the bar table, or be present in the courtroom. Other than this small group, no one else is in the courtroom. We mention this because other courts conduct reviews in open court.

The first review is conducted about ten weeks after sentencing. This time frame allows the person to settle into the order and start any necessary programs. Subsequent reviews happen every three months, sooner if an issue needs to be resolved. 

If a person breaches, the process is suspended until non-compliance issues are resolved with Community Corrections.

The magistrate may lessen the requirements of the order, but will not increase them. However, the magistrate will inform the person that Community Corrections Services may vary the order or consider breach action. 

Our court does, of course, monitor compliance, and negative and harmful behaviours are dealt with. But unless the person is not complying with basic treatment and rehabilitative activities, the focus stays on positive change. 

Our magistrate conducts reviews for almost everyone who is on a CCO, which amounts to about eight to ten a week.

Goal setting through reviews

For people with complex issues such as substance addiction and mental health issues, it's enough to use each review to address one or two main issues; it's simply not possible to cover every aspect of a person’s life in a one ten minute meeting.

The magistrate focuses on one or two main steps such as participation in treatment programs,  Moreover, as achieving goals improves the capacity and motivation to rehabilitate, the person is not expected to have completed a long list of tasks. Importantly, the person leaves with a clear idea of actions to which they are agreed and committed.

Collaborative reviews

As with all aspects of the NJC, reviews are collaborative. The person is encouraged to have a say in developing goals for rehabilitation, and corrections case workers always attend, a requirement that has supplemental benefits. 

For instance, should the person make excuses for non-performance of a condition or dispute reports, tensions are more easily resolved with the case worker on hand. Moreover, Corrections case workers can be familiar faces that put clients at ease, and reviews provide a neat forum to improve the relationship between these parties.

 

Judicial monitoring - magistrate's tips

Tips for running judicial monitoring reviews

  • Short reviews (five to seven minutes)  can be held in court before the general list. However, be strict about punctuality because the daily court list can be upset if reviews do not run on time.
  • Open-ended questions enable the person to communicate what they need. For example:  ‘How can you be better assisted?’, ‘How can we help you so this doesn’t happen again?’  ‘What's stopping you from keeping your appointments with your case workers?’
  • Ask the person how they think they are going ‘out of ten’.  This tests whether their perception matches information provided by the Community Corrections.  It can also open a conversation about why the person believes they are doing well or not, which in turn can reveal if there is a discrepancy between the person’s perception of progress and that of Community Corrections.
  • If the person raises issues with the requirements of the order, it can help to reiterate the purpose of the review and also reinforce the role of the Community Corrections officer by saying: ‘You will need to sort that out with the Community Corrections officer – it is part of the order – you need to do it but you have to sort it out with them’.
Thanks to E Richardson, Australian Centre for Justice Innovation, Monash University as part of Innovations in Justice: the NJC Experience funded by the ACJI and NJC.

Victim restoration

There is provision for the court to hear directly from the victim.  As such, the offender has the opportunity to apologise to the victim, such as during a group conference within the Children’s Court, or as part of a diversion or sentencing decision.

[1] Arie Frieberg, “Therapeutic jurisprudence in Australia: Paradigm shift or pragmatic incrementalism?” (2003)

[2] Bruce Winick and David Wexler (eds), Judging in a Therapeutic Key, 2003, Carolina Press, p7.

[3]  Innovative Approaches to Justice: the NJC experience.