Excellence in judicial intervention at the AODTC
ADLS President Brian Keene QC was recently invited to spend time at the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court (AODTC) to see how its pilot scheme is progressing. Here, he reports his visit.
ADLS has supported the AODTC pilot scheme both financially and by provision of resources. It is run under the sanction of the Ministry of Justice. It addresses the particular problems of groups in society addicted to drugs or alcohol.
To better understand the operations of the AODTC and significance of the pilot, in my role as your President, I attended a full day sitting of the AODTC. The experience was in part harrowing (i.e. hearing the personal stories of those who appeared before it) but predominantly overwhelmingly uplifting. The pilot’s approach to the social problem of drugs and alcohol merits the strongest possible encouragement and endorsement. In a very fraught area of dealing with those addicted to alcohol and other drugs, it provides support and the possibility of effective solutions to those who might otherwise lead a bleak and dismal existence.
The AODTC is presided over by a District Court Judge – in this case Judge Ema Aitken. Although in control of all of the proceedings, she repeatedly emphasised her role as being part of a team. This “team” numbered on the day some 15 people. It included key contributors from the police, probation service, case managers responsible for determining appropriate treatments, the tangata whenua, counsel and of course court staff.
The day was spilt into two halves. Before lunch the team met and, under the Judge’s able chairmanship, reviewed some 18 files of people who would be called before the AODTC that afternoon. The information available was comprehensive and constructively discussed. Gains made by individuals since their last appearance were acknowledged as the small or large steps that they were. This Court gives credit for all progress down what is a long and difficult journey from active addiction to active recovery.
As an observer, I was fortunate to find out at the morning session (which was confidential and not open to the public) that the afternoon public session included a wide range of AODTC processes including an entry into the list of a new case referred by the Auckland District Court, a “graduation”, a number of monitoring mentions and the prospect of two “exits” from supervision by the AODTC. That meant the cases I would be witnessing in the afternoon covered a broad spectrum of the work done by the AODTC.
It is right to pause here and explain briefly how the AODTC works. It receives applications referred by the District Court in the two geographical areas covered by the pilot – namely the Waitakere and Auckland Court districts. A District Court from either of those areas may refer offenders with criminal or drink driving cases where offending is likely to be a consequence of alcohol or other drug dependency. Entry into the AODTC’s programme requires an application. It also requires the applicant to agree to plead guilty to the charges. Obviously, no pressure is put on the accused to do so. It is only by the entry of a guilty plea that the AODTC can exercise effective supervisory powers over the accused prior to sentencing.
These pre-conditions only get one to the threshold of an application. The fundamentals of acceptance into the AODTC supervision are a determination to break the addiction cycle and the honesty to not only admit the addiction as a pre-condition to fighting it, but also a continuous self-honesty during the rehabilitation period. Honesty is key to earning the effective support and cooperation of the highly experienced “team”. Team members do all they can to turn around these afflicted lives. Even sitting as an observer in the AODTC, their determination, goodwill, patience and kindness was palpable.
Returning now to the day in the AODTC, on each of the files reviewed in the morning session, each member of the team contributed to the assessment of progress as needed, always with the focus of positivism and remediation. By the end of the morning, each case had been thoroughly, but sympathetically, discussed by all. The plan for the afternoon’s hearings was largely settled.
The afternoon session was a public sitting of the AODTC. It was noticeable that there was significant attendance by the families and friends of those appearing before the AODTC. Many in the public gallery were well aware of, and indeed may have suffered from, the history of those appearing. They were there to show support. That of itself was an outstanding rehabilitative contribution.
Every person coming before the Judge was treated individually and sympathetically. There were no platitudes, rather much engaging dialogue which engaged the individual issues. All spoke with the presiding Judge and so were encouraged into self-evaluation. This was a most striking contrast to the silences or monosyllabic responses of accused in the ordinary courts.
Although some showed high anxiety and real shyness, each ended up by engaging with the Court. They expressed as best they could their determination to break the cycle of addiction and an almost inexpressible gratitude to the AODTC “team” that had so supported them in their personal struggle.
The highlight of the afternoon session was a “graduation”. It centered on a man with a long history of chronic alcoholism. He had progressed in rehabilitation to being more than 450 days alcohol- and drug-free. He had completed treatment, counselling sessions and attended many AA meetings during his time in the AODTC and so become an example to others. He had learnt to live in abstinence and active recovery from the disease of addiction.
At this “passing out ceremony” he was congratulated by the AODTC, addressed from the gallery by a number of his friends and himself spoke movingly of his experience. His smile and self-confidence were uplifting. He had been a man faced with potential imprisonment arising from a number of offences, with a blood alcohol level at multiple times the statutory driving limit. He recognised that in that state, he had been a danger to himself and the community. By the AODTC-managed processes he had changed into someone who could be held up as an example of one who has turned his life around, and so become an example to those following in his footsteps. His pride in this was a joy to behold. So too was his honest acknowledgment that he had to remain vigilant against falling back into old habits.
The innovation that this Court brings to the problem of addiction is extraordinary. From being criminally judged and penalised, those appearing before it are supported, counselled and led down a pathway which empowered them to solve their problems. The self-belief that this engenders in the offender, and the admiration from their fellow travelers, create a hugely positive impulse. Others will be inspired to believe that they too could ascend from the desperately low depths of dependency and regain a place of pride in themselves in society.
There is much talk of restorative justice. That focuses on the victims and the AODTC is responsive to the victims of crime. In this area, the prime victim is the perpetrator. This justice could rightly be called “remedial justice”. In this Court, the needs of the perpetrator of the offence are a primary focus. In that way, the root causes of the offending can be addressed, thereby reducing the number of future victims. All those involved, from the presiding Judge through to the team and the support network of friends, family and residential care institutions, deserve to take a bow. Society is all the better for their work.