Podcast with Drug and Alcohol Court Magistrate Annette Hennessy

Podcast transcript

Hello, my name is Melissa Eggins and I work on the Drug and Alcohol Implementation Team in the Courts Innovation Program in the Department of Justice and Attorney-General. I’m speaking today with Magistrate Annette Hennessy. Magistrate Hennessy is the magistrate appointed to the Queensland Government’s new Drug and Alcohol Court, which is located in the Brisbane Magistrates Court. The Queensland Drug and Alcohol Court responds to the 2016 Drug and Specialist Courts Review. Legislation enabling the court was passed in parliament in October 2017. The program underpinning the court is unique, and highly collaborative—housing multi-agency staff including Queensland Health clinicians, Corrective Services officers and Queensland Police prosecutors. Legal advice is provided by Legal Aid Queensland. This team works alongside Queensland Courts staff—including a cultural liaison officer and case managers—to monitor and support staff through a two-year treatment sentence. Magistrate Hennessy, welcome to the podcast.

It is really exciting that you’ve been appointed to the drug court. When you first found out, what was your initial feeling?

Magistrate Hennessy: I was excited because I really like working in diversionary courts and the opportunities for that have become a little more limited in country areas because of resourcing. But especially being able to come in from the start and be part of the set-up and make sure that… well, it’s easier to get involved at the start and have the initial implementation idea about the direction. So that was really exciting.

I imagine as a magistrate, that would be a very powerful opportunity before you?

Magistrate Hennessy: Yes, it is good. It’s nice to not have to stitch together changes to be in a framework that isn’t really meant to fit what you’re trying to do. So, having it start from scratch and be a whole new framework and have its own direction and have it be able to work towards that from the very beginning, is really great.

If we could touch on your background and your history, you do have a history of driving innovation—I’ve read with interest your history in northern Queensland. Can you tell me about some of the initiatives you’ve been involved in? But I guess, more importantly, how they came about?

Magistrate Hennessy: The first one on the bench—though I had been involved in doing some things while I was a solicitor in practice—was setting up community legal centres. So I always had an interest in seeing where people were falling through the gaps and trying to address that and reduce the chance of that happening. But I got appointed to Rockhampton in ’99 and in early 2003 the then Chief Magistrate, had a reconciliation ceremony where she gave an apology to Aboriginal people—Di Fingleton. And she started to set up a Murri Court in Brisbane. So I had acted as agent for ATSILS out in the country when I was in practice in Goondiwindi and so I had always had that interest in Aboriginal issues. So I fortunately met a really wonderful woman called Carol Willey, who became eventually the court coordinator for Murri Court in Rockhampton; she was at Corrections. And between the two of us, we set up a program that started in June 2003 with adults and then children. So that ran until I left Rockhampton in 2013 but then we had an Indigenous alcohol diversion program QIADP—so that was a similar thing involving consultation with the community and a lot of community organisations coming in… all working together towards getting parents who had children in the child protection system and criminal charges, or criminal charges, to have an alcohol diversion program especially for Indigenous people. I started to try and work out a specialised domestic violence list—looking between domestic violence, the criminal aspects of that and child protection to try and address those issues in a more specific and directed way. So that then lead the Breaking the Cycle pilot. And so we kept doing what we were doing at court but we had the pilot sort of sitting beside court and we got some extra recourse for duty lawyers and what not. But that was working on domestic violence in a much more holistic way, which is pretty similar to what is happening now at Southport.  Then when I went to Maroochydore, I got involved in QMERIT—which was the half-way drug court, really—but a 26-week program for persons with drug problems that have contributed to their offending.  So, it sort of has meant that between all of those different areas of law, I’ve managed to work out how best to approach those diversionary courts and how multi-disciplinary teams. All of that back in 2003 was very new to the court and not within our normal skill sets.

I’ve read that the character Atticus Finch is a key motivator to you. But listening to you then — I’ll touch on that point where you said “picking up people falling through the cracks” it sounds like that was you and why you became a lawyer in the first place.

Magistrate Hennessy: Yeah, I think the thing about To Kill A Mockingbird is that it grabbed me how powerful that courtroom scene was and how much influence you could have on making decisions that affect people’s lives in a courtroom. And that was probably the initial thing as a 13 or 14 year old, or whatever I was, that grabbed me. But I guess I got raised with a pretty strong social justice viewpoint and educated by Franciscans in high school, so that’s very community-oriented and helping people and I guess looking for where those gaps in services are and trying to make people’s lives a little bit easier. So that was partly bred into me. But I hadn’t really thought about the Indigenous component of To Kill A Mockingbird. But I guess it was people with disadvantage was the big thing in that circumstance, it wasn’t necessarily about race, but anyone that is so disadvantaged they don’t get a fair go if their left to their own devices.

I did have the opportunity to sit in on your court… I guess what I saw was that you were compassionate but firm. Is that how you would describe yourself in your role as a magistrate?

Magistrate Hennessy: Yeah, I think so. Being firm is pretty essential and I was appointed at 36 so I was quite a young woman. And going into the country to a fairly conservative place as a 36-year-old magistrate I had to be firm from the start to be taken seriously really. And then I realised that it actually works if you combine it with respect and allowing people some dignity.  There were two huge learning things for me in Murri Court—and one was that our motto was between the elders and the court and the justice group, was that we would be critical of the offending behaviour but not of the person. So not to have people thinking “I’m a bad person because I did this”, but to try and examine why have you done this thing that is bad and has affected people negatively. So I think if you combine respect and dignity and a bit of empathy with firmness, then people respond to that. And I was in Rockhampton over 13 years and so a lot of the defendants had appeared before me — many times some of them — some from when they were children and some of them were offending as adults. Unfortunately they kept offending and that’s why they knew me so well. But some of the feedback I got was that they thought I was firm but fair and to me, fairness is probably the biggest aspect of being a judge that needs to be honoured. Because if there’s no fairness, then I don’t know where we are really or why we’re doing this.

It sounds almost like best-practice model for parenting: don’t target the child, it’s the behaviour. It’s the grown-up version of that.

Magistrate Hennessy: And that’s something that gets missed in criminal court, is that it tends to get all rolled up into one. Murri Court really showed me starkly that’s an essential thing to try and have the person’s idea of themselves intact, that way knowing they need some help in what’s going wrong in their life. But if you just knock them down and tell them they are terrible people and there’s no hope for them, they won’t have any hope.

So, the research is clear worldwide that best-practice drug courts work. So how do you see this new court helping Queensland?

Magistrate Hennessy: Helping people overcome whatever problem it is that they happen to have—and it’s usually  more than one—that contributes to their offending or leads them to offending… and especially addictions I think fall into this category most markedly. But helping them work on that really has a ripple effect away from the person. So you’re helping them deal with what their issues are in a way they take accountability for their actions… and they’re working on themselves to reduce offending and stop offending in the future. And there’s ups and downs in that, it’s pretty hard to do. But it also improves—and I saw this a lot in Murri Court—it improves the quality of life of their family, their friends, the community around them as well. So there’s lots of impacts on a lot more people than you think. And apart from the immediate impacts for that person about not offending and improving their health, and being more socially responsible, it actually does contribute to improving community safety and social cohesion in the community. So it has a lot of impacts that really aren’t measurable. And that has made it difficult for diversionary courts over the years because evaluations are usually focused on recidivism and cost and is it effective if the person keeps committing offences even if they might be reduced or more infrequent. But it’s hard to measure all of that other stuff… which is why it doesn’t get focused on. But that’s really the most powerful part. There was one man in Murri Court who was always getting into trouble—not for very serious things—but he came back and saw me one day with the Elders and was so proud, wanted to tell me that because he got off the grog and wasn’t getting into trouble, he was spending more time with his kids, and his eldest daughter had been made the school captain of her primary school. And he attributed all of that to an improvement in his behaviour and drinking and how he was acting with his family. And he was so proud of her. He said ‘she’s the first school captain ever in our family’. So you know, that sort of stuff you can’t measure, but it’s priceless to that family and probably to that school and that little girl’s future and he put all that down to the improvements he made while he was working with Murri Court on what his issues were.

When I look at the whole drug court model, one of the key benefits is having everyone there— the multi-agencies collocated into one team. What do you see the benefits of that being?

Magistrate Hennessy: That’s been one of the issues with diversionary courts up until now. It’s been that even though we’re working in multi-disciplinary teams and people might come to court for meetings, and be there on the court day or whatever, that then everybody disperses and if a defendant comes in needing help away from those times then they have to get sent on to somewhere else and that’s usually when they fall through a crack because they usually don’t make it, even if it’s in the next-door building.  Having all of the team there makes it a consistent service for people, even when they’re not scheduled. But it also really helps to improve their attendance rate. It reduces the amount of times they have appointments; it means that all the appointments are in the one place so that they come to the fourth floor for court; for treatment; for testing and for legal advice about those issues. So it will be a place where they can do everything and it will be a central focus point for them. But it will reduce the amount of times they will have appointments; So they’re not going to one suburb for Queensland Health to get tested and then another suburb to have some treatment on a different day. Or maybe they’ve got transport issues or timing problems. Keeping appointments can be problematic for people with addictions because maybe they’re not sleeping well at night, waking up late and basically life’s just a little bit chaotic. So all that helps from a practical point of view to improve attendance. And once you’ve got them there, then you can be working. But the other thing is it also provides more cohesion in the team I think, because the exchange of information is pretty immediate about updating what’s happening with a certain person, or a practice or procedure or new research or whatever. All that can be exchanged fairly quickly. It obviously builds some comradery amongst the various team members that aren’t really used to working with each other. It’s been a little bit better here because we had drug court before and some of those relationships have already been formed, especially at management level. But it really is actually quite difficult to work with organisations from different government departments that have never been engaged with the legal process before. Because we’re pretty much a fixed model as far as what can and can’t happen is governed by the legislation. But especially social science—social workers, people who provide treatment—find it difficult to engage with the legal system. And the legal system does need to soften around the edges to be able to be interactive with those other service providers as well. So it helps with all of that. When you’re working in a team like this, especially when you’re all coming from a different place with different qualifications, coming from a different professional culture, and all working together is that the wisdom doesn’t reside with any one person. So when you’re having a meeting around the table, you really have to put yourself in that mind-space that you’re completely open to everybody’s opinion about a certain thing. And that’s something that‘s been traditionally difficult for judicial officers because that’s not really the way we work or the way we’re trained. And in the end result we still need to be that silo that makes the legal decision on the basis of the law, but we have to be open enough to be able to receive all of the supporting information to inform that decision. That was a big cultural change when we started doing programs like Murri Court. But that’s now 15 years ago.

Community misconception is that drug courts are soft. And that they don’t respect victims. What’s your message to people that think that?

Magistrate Hennessy: Well, any diversionary court, but especially drug court because it’s going to be a minimum two-years of treatment, can’t ever be described as a soft option. Because people with entrenched problems, and behaviours that follow from that—whether it’s addiction or from other issues like mental health or other social issues that have led to the addictions in the first place. And even the criminal behaviour can be an issue that’s hard to move away from if you’re whole social set are criminals, or your family environment has that leaning. It can be the hardest thing in the world for people to actually confront all of those things and deal with them. And that’s one of the reasons why the minimum treatment is two years, because that’s been found to be most effective to deal with usually multiple problems that are all contributing to the addiction. It just really depends how motivated they are. Some people want to do it but they’re not capable of doing it at that stage and they might come back to it later; some people just aren’t even prepared to try, because it’s all just too hard. So a lot of people with various diversionary courts just say ‘Look, it’s easier just to go to jail’. So a lot of them won’t even engage with them because it’s too hard. But for those that do, and do the hard yards and get through the treatment, it can make some massive changes to their life and as I said the other people around them also. So it’s certainly not a soft option. And the thing about the way the drug court orders are being set up is that there is always a sentence hanging over their head about how they could be sanctioned with various punishments up to and including short terms of imprisonment. So it’s not as if it’s something that if you’re not complying that you can say Ok that didn’t work go off and try something else. The end of the road is jail if it doesn’t work and if they’re having problems that really need some sort of correction, then there’s the possibility of jail as well. So there’s some teeth built into it as well. As far as respecting victims go… there’s been some protections put in around particular types of offences. So a drug and alcohol court won’t take sexual offences and will only take domestic violence related offences after an analysis of whether or not that’s going to put the aggrieved in any danger or have any safety issues. So those issues will all be looked at before we decide whether that person is able to come onto the program. And if it looks like there’s going to be any sort of adverse outcome for the aggrieved or the victim then it’s likely we won’t take them .The other aspect is victim impact statements. It’s a normal court in the extent that victim impact statements can be presented. So the view of the victim about the impact of the offending on them is still taken into account on sentencing. Victims will be able to write in at various stages if they’re known to the defendant at different stages of the program to say how there’s positive or negative impacts on them while they’re undergoing treatment. And that can be taken into account along the way as well. I think as a whole, if the community’s the victim, if there’s offending against the state or the community, then in my view it does ultimately show respect to them, because it’s showing that the court is taking the issue—and other government agencies are taking the issue about offending—seriously. That we’re throwing a lot of effort at trying to move that person away from offending, to protect the community. So I don’t think it’s disrespectful to victims. It doesn’t downplay the impact on any victims, whether they are individuals, businesses, or the community from the offending.

And the other thing is, if a person goes through treatment and they get a job as part of it, as housing and employment and life skills are included in the treatment, then that will probably put them in a position where they’re able to pay restitution (if it’s property offences) that they would never be able to pay if they went to jail. In that way, it can potentially help to restore the financial loss the victims might have suffered as well that wouldn’t be an outcome if they just went to jail.

Thank you Magistrate Hennessy for sharing your insights today. We look forward to hearing the successes of the court in the future.