In just a few days the Wellington Special Circumstances Court will celebrate its fourth birthday. The Court, established by Judge (now Justice) Susan Thomas, held its first sitting on 6 March 2012.
Justice Thomas’s interest in setting up the court, she says, “was piqued first of all when I was dealing with one particular offender. He was obviously well educated and eloquent but homeless. He was clearly an alcoholic and he was caught up in this cycle of low-level offending.
“He was continually appearing on charges of being unlawfully in a building and shoplifting, and it was mainly shoplifting alcohol.
“As it transpired, his most pressing issue was that he had chronic dental decay which was causing dreadful pain and he was self-medicating with alcohol – hence the shoplifting of alcohol. He was sleeping wherever he could find shelter – hence the charges of being unlawfully in a building.
“There was a representative of the local DHB in court one day and we were discussing what could be done and then she organised a series of meetings – huis – concerning, amongst other things, the relationship between the health sector and people caught in the criminal justice system.
“That sparked me into thinking about wider problems of people who have no support or real support and structure in their lives, and how they deal with their day-to-day issues, much less how they comply with a court sentence.
“So I was thinking well, if you don’t know where you’re going to be sleeping from one night to the next, it must be almost impossible to get any structure in your life – to make sure you get to community work at a certain time or report to your probation officer, or, if you’re sentenced to a rehabilitative sentence such as supervision, to regularly attend counselling. Being able to access benefits and manage finances through a bank account is all so much harder without a permanent address.
“So I began to become more interested in some of these issues, the work of various social agencies and how they all interacted – or didn’t – with the criminal justice system,” Justice Thomas says.
Frustration and sadness
“That was coupled with the frustration and sadness of dealing with repeat offenders who quite often, simply by virtue of the number of charges and the continued breaches of previous sentences, end up with a sentence of imprisonment – imposed for what can be seen as relatively low-level offending. And then they can be sentenced to a short term, say four months and then they’re out in two. And then almost immediately they are back before the court for very similar offending. And the cycle repeats.”
So Justice Thomas decided to explore establishing a specialist court which would focus on people who were homeless.
The aim of the Court was to reduce re-offending by supporting offenders to access local resources through Governmental and non-Governmental agencies to assist them with their rehabilitation, with the first step being to find them stable accommodation. This involved the formulation of an offender-focused rehabilitation plan which would be monitored by the Court and case managed by a community worker.
She used a wide definition of homelessness. “It’s not just someone who is sleeping rough. It includes people who are couch surfing, staying with friends, never knowing where they are going to be sleeping from one night to the next.”
Justice Thomas visited organisations which help the homeless, saying “people involved in these organisations are extraordinary in terms of what they are able to achieve on very limited budgets. Despite the pressures on them, they were very interested in becoming involved in a special court focused on homelessness.
“That was really the genesis behind it all.”
Alcohol and drug addiction issues and mental health issues are often prevalent among the homeless, and it was obvious that the court needed not only agencies able to assist in housing but also access to alcohol and drug services, and mental health services.
“So I held a series of meetings. Really I was simply hoping to find anybody who was interested and thought they might be able to contribute. I was really pleased by the support.
“Leah Davison, a lawyer with the PDS, was integral to the commencement of the Court. I knew Leah’s background included working as a probation officer. As a duty solicitor she often appeared before me. I knew she was someone who was very focused on these issues.
“The difficulty we had was that there no special funding available for the court. By this time, a number of problem-solving courts had already been set up and a moratorium was imposed preventing the establishment of more of these courts until a review of them had been conducted. So it was a matter of saying to myself, do I sit back and wait for formal approval and funding or do I see if there is a way I can do this without actually needing any additional resources?
“And that is what I did. Obviously I needed the approval of the Chief District Court Judge which was given on the basis that I did not call on any extra resources.
“I held the court on mornings when I was rostered to work in chambers. So I did that work after hours.
“The court would meet once a month, starting at about 11:45. Prior to that the defendants would have to attend court and meet with the various agencies who were involved with their case. The defendants would then have to come and see me. I considered it crucial that there was consistency of judge so the offenders felt a real sense of personal accountability to me. It meant there was less chance of them being able to pull the wool over a judge’s eyes or play one judge off against another!
“Participation in the court often required a real change in behaviour for offenders, not only in the work they had to do outside of court, but also because they had to attend regularly, engage in dialogue with me as the Judge and explain what they had been doing. Participation in the Special Circumstances Court kept them in the court system for much longer than was usually the case. By no means was it a soft option.
“There were two other important people involved when the court was established. One was Major Lee Edney from the Salvation Army. At that time, she was the Salvation Army representative present in list courts most days. We had no funding for a court co-ordinator. She volunteered for that role.
“The other person present at the time the court was established was Ann Begg, the court forensic nurse. Both of those two have subsequently moved to other positions.
“That is how it all started. It was envisaged that the numbers of offenders would not exceed 10 at any one time but I think by our second court sitting they were well over that.
“There is a big demand. And one could legitimately say that there are quite a number of defendants who would benefit from this approach. But obviously, things have to be done in a measured way to start with and you start with those with the greatest need,” Justice Thomas says.