Teamwork for better justice outcomes

The Neighbourhood Justice Centre provides people who come before its court with opportunities to address the circumstances in their lives that contributed to why they are in court, and to find solutions to these issues.

The Problem Solving Process (PSP) is one such opportunity.

The PSP is a brief, intensive intervention that centres around a meeting—ordinarily no more than 90 minutes—at which the person before the court, their legal representatives, and any support workers explore the problems the person is facing, and develop an activity plan to address these issues and support the client’s recovery and rehabilitation.

While the process is available to anyone who comes for the NJC’s court, most participants are higher risk, that is, they have significant, ongoing complex issues to overcome.

The Process can be used at any point in the client’s journey through the justice system, from the point of being charged to the end of a sentence, and is facilitated by the Neighourhood Justice Officer.

As importantly, the process is voluntary. 

The PSP 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]

"Clients are often disengaged from friends, family, treatment and the court process. The Problem Solving meeting offers hope, and puts the client in the driver’s seat. It also helps our teams develop a shared and consistent approach. It creates energy and momentum and that's really important for the client."

Matthew Cocomazzo, Alcohol and Drug Clinician, NJC.

How it 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).

Most referrals come from legal representatives or the Magistrate. Individuals may self-refer, and as the process integrated into the operations of the Centre and all justice stakeholders can access it, including Police Prosecutions, Community Corrections, Client Services and other staff who believe a client would benefit. 

Potential clients are:

  • Accused person in a criminal case (adult or children’s jurisdiction). Accused is required to plead guilty or give a formal indication to plea. 
  • Accused person found guilty and sentenced to a community-based order.
  • Person on a community-based order who is at risk, or has breached, the conditions of their order, but expresses a motivation to address the problems that led to the breach.

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

The referral process is also very simple: it only involves approaching the NJO in person or via email.

2   Assessment

The PSP generally seeks to assist people experiencing complex unmet need who are at higher risk of poor psycho-social and justice outcomes, and the threshold to participating is set at a level that minimises barriers to participation. 

Assessment involves the Convenor meeting with the client to explain the steps involved with care taken to ensure the client is fully informed and understands how the PSP works.

If the person has matters active before the court, their legal representative will also participate in the assessment.

Assessment also enables the Convenor to identify if the client faces barriers constructive participation, for example, heavy intoxication, or the presence of significant untreated psychiatric disturbance (such as psychotic symptoms). Clients who present with compromising issues are referred to the NJC's onsite treatment services to stabilise the condition/s, and invited to return for another assessment at a suitable time.

Once satisfied the client can give informed consent to participate, the Convenor invites the client to talk to their legal representatives in private.

Once the client decides to proceed, the Convenor and client prepare a list of invitees for the Problem Solving Meeting. Again, for a matter still before the court, the client’s legal representative is required to be present, but otherwise the Convenor is guided by the client in identifying who to invite. 

3   Meeting

The Problem Solving Meeting (PSM) is held at a time convenient to all parties, and is facilitated by the convenor who is also responsible for reporting outcomes to the court.

At the start of the meeting the Convenor reiterates the principles that underpin meetings and what is expected of 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, particularly the referred person.

Participants explore problems together and generate  suggestions and ideas that can support change.

The Convenor writes contributions on a board for participants to aid discussion, and ideas are refined until some or all are adopted by consensus.  These contributions form the meeting outcomes, and each participant gets a copy of outcomes, and the meeting is closed.

No two meetings are alike. Each one is a unique expression of participants collaborations, with each one generating‘in time’ and shared understanding of the problems impacting on clients' lives.

Nearly every PSM generates outcomes; on average, each meeting generates four outcomes.

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

4   Return to court

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

  • Details of who referred the matter 
  • A list of participants
  • Confirmation that the client attended and engaged in the discussion
  • Duration of the meeting  
  • A brief statement of the problem(s) that informed the referral
  • Outcome.

The Convenor (the Neighbourhood Justice Officer) is present when the matter returns to court.

Implementation experience

While the PSP's effect on overall justice outcomes may be difficult to measure, the Centre is confident it contributes to the rate of successfully Community Correction Orders at the NJC .[2]

Baseline data also reveals other noteworthy patterns:

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

Practice observations

The PSP 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
  • Simplify the logistics of taking action
  • Transform problem-saturated narratives into achievable goal-focused statements
  • Restore a sense of personal efficacy
  • Restore working relations with professionals and build unity of goals
  • Restore relationships with family and other support people.

For justice stakeholders it can:

  • 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.

Broad use

Problem Solving can assist collaborative work flow in such a multi-jurisdictional  environment. For example, it can assist in complex matters that come before, for example the adult Criminal Division, and cross into other jurisdictions, such as Family Violence, or Residential Tenancies.

Problem Solving also encourages the participation of family members and friends in the process.

Adapting the process to other courts

Problem Solving is 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 and 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 transferable to other courts with the right 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.