Insight: helping people out of the legal maze

You get a strong sense that Jen Black, Senior Community Lawyer working at the Neighbourhood Justice Centre in Collingwood, is driven by a deep conviction that community justice is about helping vulnerable people better ‘navigate through systems’. It is a phrase Jen uses on a number of occasions when quizzed about her role in one of the community meeting rooms at the NJC.

‘In my view, the role of a lawyer in the therapeutic context is to ensure clients make well informed choices about the legal options in their case as well as the treatment options available. Clients need to be clear on the nature and extent of treatment and the services offered and the time they will take.

It is really important that as lawyers we do not treat clients as wholly passive recipients of professional help. Clients should not be excluded from the process of defining problems, identifying options and selecting strategies to assist with their issues. People are making really important decisions often in times of crisis. It is important they get good advice to help them make decisions.’

Jen is one of a team of our lawyers who work collectively to meet the complex legal needs of clients that come before the NJC.

‘I think it is really great to work with the expert team that we have at the NJC – with Ella in family law, Galit in tenancy, and me as criminal. We are really quite adept at seeing the links between the different areas of the law and providing a multi-jurisdictional service. For example often a client has a family violence intervention order matter that is going to have implications for their tenancy matter.

I also really enjoy working in a multi-disciplinary environment with members of the client services team, mental health clinician and drug and alcohol workers for example. Being able to see the interaction of different areas of law and being able to assist in putting supports in place to address those issues is the most rewarding part of my role.’

The unique vantage point our lawyers have at the NJC mean that Jen and her team (through their clients) see first-hand the areas of the law which most deserve reform.

‘There is currently a diversion review being undertaken by the Magistrates Court. I think that is an area deserving of reform because there is, in my view, quite a lot of inconsistency across the system, quite a lot of discretion in terms of people who obtain diversion and people who don’t. There is a whole host of reasons why that is – for instance it might be because people who access a lawyer earlier are perhaps more equipped to advocate for a diversion earlier or it might be because a different prosecutor in a different court has a different view about what is suitable for diversion. That lack of consistency is concerning and I think that legislative change in the area of diversion would be great to provide greater consistency and greater transparency.

I also think criminal records are a big area deserving of reform. Victoria is unlike every state in Australia in that it does not have a spent criminal records conviction scheme. So whilst Victoria has some really good rehabilitative options, the reality for the sentencing of non-conviction dispositions is that if you have a finding of guilt in an open court it will be disclosed on your criminal record.

In New South Wales if you receive a non-conviction disposition it won’t be disclosed. That is quite a different experience for a person living in Victoria as opposed to New South Wales – and that doesn’t seem that fair to me.’

Jen is very concerned that there is little community understanding about what various sentencing options actually mean. She believes there is a significant chance of a person unwittingly facing discrimination because of a simple lack of awareness.

‘I think a lot of people are under the misconception that if they get a non-conviction disposition it won’t be released. With more and more people representing themselves in court I think that is concerning. I think it is not at all clear how employers view what is released to them through the criminal records check. Do they understand that if someone has a good behavior bond without conviction, then that’s at the bottom of the sentencing scale? Do they understand what a community corrections order is, opposed to a suspended sentence? I think that kind of evidence about how employers interpret criminal records is really unknown.’

Jen is able to fathom the deep complexities that stem from working with a range of professionals including drug and alcohol counsellors, financial counsellors, mental health practitioners and social workers. Many of the other co-located social services professionals work in a different therapeutic model to that of a lawyer taking instructions from a client.

Jen says this is particularly important when people come before the court for the first time.

‘Having meaningful ways to engage with people who come to court for the first time so that they remember and learn from that experience is something we do not think about enough. It can have a really big impact on people staying out of that system. ‘

As Jen sees it ‘people should be given the chance to move on from bad decisions and claim employment and lead productive lives without being prejudiced as a result of past mistakes.’