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Special criminal court helps mental health

Special criminal court helps mental health

New research released today (14 October) to coincide with Mental Health Week has revealed the positive impact a Queensland court has had on mental health. Research by The University of…

New research released today (14 October) to coincide with Mental Health Week has revealed the positive impact a Queensland court has had on mental health.

Research by The University of Queensland's School of Law has revealed how Brisbane's Special Circumstances Court (SCC) has helped homeless people and people with mental health problems get their lives back on track.

Established in 2006, the SCC aims to rehabilitate people who have committed low-level criminal offences, who are either homeless or at risk of homelessness, or are suffering from impaired decision-making capacity. For a case to go before the SCC, the criminal charge faced by a defendant must have arisen in circumstances connected to the person's homelessness or impaired capacity.

The research, co-funded by the Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration and conducted by Dr Tamara Walsh and students from the University of Queensland's TC Beirne Law School, revealed how the SCC has restored faith in the justice system amongst many defendants.

"Many had lost faith in the justice system until they came to the Special Circumstances Court," said Dr Walsh, the author of the report A Special Court for Special Cases. "For them, the court was a place they felt safe and where they felt they belonged."

Over six months, the researchers observed 185 defendants, 93 of whom appeared multiple times before the court. The vast majority (88 per cent) were homeless and the most common charges they faced were public space offences such as public nuisance, contravention of a police direction and begging. Almost one third of the defendants were younger adults aged between 17 and 25 years of age.

In most cases, mental illness was an issue. Mental illness was confirmed as a problem in 53 per cent of cases and raised in a further 24 per cent of cases.

Many of the defendants interviewed as part of the research said they felt they had been misunderstood and unfairly treated by judicial officers in the past. In contrast, they said they felt safe and supported in the SCC where magistrates work closely with defendants to find practical solutions to the difficulties they face.

Discussing the report's recommendations, Walsh said she is confident the SCC model can be replicated beyond the criminal courts.

The Queensland SCC is based on a Victorian court which was established in 2002 - the first of its kind in Australia.

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