In what proved an eye-opening experience, RMIT Juris Doctor students recently spent a week in the confronting confines of Melbourne’s Drug Court.
Frank Aloe and Amy Roseman were granted a rare insight into the workings of the court and the decision-making process of participants ranging from Magistrate Tony Parsons to police, social workers and the offenders themselves.
The experience was part of a program delivered by Centre for Innovative Justice (CIJ) for RMIT’s Juris Doctor postgraduate degree, which aims to grant participants access to real-world situations where they can see the law in action.
“It was very confronting,” Aloe said, of his time watching a string of individuals broken by drugs come before the court.
“We spent time behind the scenes with everyone from case workers and counsellors to police and the Magistrate, as they discussed individual’s circumstances and tried to work out the best way to help them.
“We then got to see how this played out in court. At the end of the day, we had the chance to ask the Magistrate why he made the decisions he did and what the thought process was.
“You hear a lot about the criminal side of drugs, but this exposed us very much to the human side. It was quite moving actually.”
One individual in particular stands out in Aloe’s mind.
“There was one offender in court for using ice who had five friends commit suicide over a two-year period. He was using ice as a way to deal with that.
“There are obviously the criminal elements related to drug abuse, but quite often there was so much more going on.”
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Roseman agreed and said her time at the Drug Court proved invaluable to her legal education and went beyond her expectations.
“While I had learnt about therapeutic jurisprudence and restorative justice at university, it was another thing entirely to be exposed to it in the day-to-day workings of the court and its innovative approach drug related offending,” she said.
Roseman said the running of the court was different to any other court proceedings she had seen.
“The participants speak directly to Magistrate Parsons at their weekly appearance where any recent drug use is openly discussed,” she said.
“The order is also distinctive in that it promotes necessary life skills and emphasises the importance of the participant’s health and wellbeing during rehabilitation.
“There is a wide scope of support to aid in reintegration through return-to-work programs, community work and access to TAFE courses. I found the court’s approach in this respect to be particularly advanced and a better long-term investment for the community.”
While the Drug Court sat for three days, the other two days of their week of immersion experience were taken up with general Magistrates Court cases.
Aloe said the difference between the two courts was marked.
“The Drug Court breaks away from the more adversarial courtroom approach and the emphasis is on all those involved coming together as a team to try and get the best result for the drug affected person.”
Aloe was also one of 22 participants in the Centre for Innovative Justice’s Court of Appeal Internship program, in which students followed cases heard in the Court of Appeal.
CIJ Director, Adjunct Professor Rob Hulls, said such opportunities and short placements gave RMIT JD students unique, practical experiences of the justice system.
“It shows them how innovative, therapeutic and problem-solving approaches to delivering justice like the Drug Court can make a positive intervention in people’s lives,” Hulls said.
“We want to give our law students an education that will make them ready to be part of the modern, responsive, accessible justice system of the future.”
His view is supported by Roseman, who said she encouraged other students to take part.
“The CIJ offers students the important resource of access to opportunities like this one, which are otherwise not readily available,” she said.
“Practical experience in this unique court setting might also help students in unexpected ways. From this placement I have a better sense of direction concerning where I want my legal career to go and renewed inspiration for my studies.”
Aloe said his time spent in court had completely changed his approach to the law.
“It’s one thing understanding textbook law and quite another understanding how it affects human beings.”
Story: Greg Thom