Teamwork for better justice outcomes

At the Neighbourhood Justice Centre people who come before our court have opportunities to find solutions to the circumstances in their lives that contributed to why they ended up in court in the first place. The Problem Solving Meeting is one such opportunity. 

What it is

Our problem Solving Meeting (PSM) is an intensive intervention that centres around a meeting at which the person before the court (aka the client), their legal representatives, case workers, and family or friends find practical pathways to resolve issues that, if ignored, will hinder rehabilitating.

While the PSM is available to all clients, most participants have higher risk psycho-social issues and are thus at a higher risk of reoffending.

The PSM can be used at any point in the client’s journey through the justice system from the time of being charged to around the time of a bail application, and when serving a community corrections order. 

The PSM is managed by a convenor, in our case, the Neighbourhood Justice Officer (NJO). Should other courts adopt the process, the convenor would be an equally trained professional.

The convenor models independence, impartiality and fairness and the process is delivered according to principles of: parity, the protection of legal rights and in keeping with a collaborative problem solving ethos.

Nearly every PSM generates outcomes and typically clients leave with four treatment or support actions to pursue. And while usually one meeting is all that's needed, we run as many as required for the client to get back on their feet.

The process is voluntary -  the client must want to change, even if, to begin with, this desire is lukewarm.

Court benefits -  the PSM assists collaborative workflow across jurisdiction. For example, in complex matters that span the adult Criminal Division, Family Violence, or Residential Tenancies. 

Who participates

The criteria for participating is set at a level that minimises barriers to participation, and the process is open to:

  • 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
  • Clients can also self-refer.

How it works

The process involves referral and assessment, the problem solving meeting, and return to court. 

1   Referral 

The Magistrate or legal representatives refer candidates to the convenor (as mentioned, in our case, our Neighbourhood Justice Officer) who assesses their suitability to participate. 

In most circumstances referrals come after a formal plea of guilty.

So saying, Police Prosecutions, Community Corrections, support services and other justice stakeholders can  refer clients at any time they believe their client would benefit from participating.

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

2   Assessment 

Assessing a client's capacity and willingness to participate is straightforward:

  1. The convenor meets the client to explains the process, taking care to ensure the client understands their need to participate as fully as possible. 
    If the client has matters active before the court, their legal representative also participates in the assessment.
  2. Once the convenor is satisfied the candidate can give informed consent to participate, the legal representative can client meet in private so any questions can be answered and the client asserts their willingness to participate.
  3. Next the convenor and client prepare a list of invitees for the Problem Solving Meeting. If the client's matter is still before the court, their legal representative is present, but otherwise the convenor is guided by the client in identifying who to invite. 

Declining a client

Clients who present with issues that would clearly stand in the way of full participation, such as heavy intoxication or the presence of significant untreated psychiatric disturbance such as psychotic symptoms, are referred to our support services who stabilise the condition/s. When the time is right, the client is invited to return for another assessment.

3   Meeting

The heart of the whole process is the Problem Solving Meeting. Like the assessment process, it is straightforward and methodical.

First the convenor opens proceedings by reiterating the underpinning principles 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 participants agree by consensus to report back to the court 

  • the convenor facilitates the meeting from beginning to end 

  • everyone is expected to participate, particularly the client.

Next participants then explore problems together and generate suggestions and ideas that can support change.   (Tip - we host the meeting in our meeting rooms which have white boards so the convenor can write contributions on a board to aid discussion). 

Finally, solutions are refined until some or all are adopted by consensus and a practical action plan is drawn up. Each participant gets a copy of the plan, and the meeting is closed.

No two meetings are alike. Each one is a unique expression of participants' collaborations. That said, all meetings should conclude with participants leaving with a shared understanding of the problems impacting on clients' lives.

It's also worth noting that while meetings oriented towards practical solutions, for instance, modifying treatment regimes or securing accommodation, the conversations often unearth deeply personal issues and meetings can be restorative.  All participants should be open to this eventuality.

4   Return to court

The convenor provides the court with a report of the meeting. The report covers:

  • Details of who referred the matter 
  • Confirmation that the client attended and engaged in discussions
  • Brief statement of the problem(s) that informed the referral
  • List of participants
  • Duration of the meeting  
  • Outcome.

And finally, the the convenor (the NJO) is present when the matter returns to court.

Our experience

While the effect our Problem Solving Meeting has on overall justice outcomes may be difficult to measure, we are confident it contributes to the rate of successfully Community Correction Orders at the NJC .[2]

Baseline data also reveals other noteworthy patterns:

  • 52% of all participants are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. This suggests it's universally appropriate.
  • 85% of participating clients have not been sentenced which suggests strong buy in from legal practitioners 
  • 50% of Magistrate referrals are initiated by lawyers, also suggesting strong buy-in from legal practitioners.
  • 51% of referred clients have one charge of breaching a previous court order. This indicates the process is a useful response to recidivist offending and has buy-in from community corrections.
  • Up to half of all professionals attending meetings come from outside the NJC, indicating local service sector interest in, and acceptance of, the process.[3]

Practice observations

For the referred person participation 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.
  • Encourages participation of client's family and friends.

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.

"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.

Expanding practice

With the right training and mentoring our Problem Solving Meeting can adopted by any other court with ease. 

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

Hear from the experts

This audio comes from a mock trial we ran to showcase our problem solving techniques. 

Using the matter of 'Mia' a representation of our high-risk clients, our duty lawyers Corrections Manager, Alcohol & Drug clinician, Magistrate and NJO explain why the PSP is integral to their work. 

[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.