Australian Law – Vulnerable people to have better access to justice

Vulnerable people who have difficulty communicating should have better assistance when accessing the justice system, according to a new report .

The independent South Australian Law Reform Institute (SALRI), based at the University of Adelaide’s Law School, is proposing important changes to the role and use of communications partners (CPs) in the legal system.

“People with disabilities or disorders that affect their ability to communicate face numerous challenges in the criminal justice system,” said the Director of SALRI, the University of Adelaide’s Professor John Williams.

“SALRI decided to undertake this project itself. Our report seeks to help children, people with disabilities, older people and members of Aboriginal and multicultural communities to have better access to justice.

“The changes we are recommending to the State’s existing communication partner scheme aim to better support people with complex communication needs, whether suspects, accused, litigants, witnesses or victims, so that they are able to provide their best evidence, both in and out of court.”

CPs can currently assist in criminal cases and SALRI’s report suggests expanding this support to civil cases, youth courts, including child protection, and family courts. CPs can assist victims and witnesses but also suspects and accused.

Under the present system CPs are restricted to certain professionals, such as psychologists, social workers and teachers paid for by the users of the scheme. Under the new proposed model by SALRI, anyone with the necessary skills to assist someone with a complex communication need would be able to act as a CP. This is expected to ease difficulties in finding appropriate CPs particularly in regional and remote areas of South Australia and for members of Aboriginal communities.

The SALRI report published today, Thursday 11 November, Providing a Voice to the Vulnerable: A Study of Communication Assistance in South Australia includes 51 recommendations to the South Australian Government for changes to the law and practice which include:

  • Changing the present system in which the users pays for the service into a publicly funded one managed by the State Government;
  • Both volunteers including family members and community figures, and paid professionals may act as communication partners so as to best cater for each person’s individual needs;
  • The role and value of pre-trial ground rules hearings, during which communication partners may help set the ground rules for subsequent trials;
  • Better promotion of the scheme especially to communities that most need it;
  • Various legislative changes;
  • Operational, cultural and training changes to improve knowledge and use of the CP role.

Despite the best intentions of all the parties that have supported and been involved in the CP role to date, it has not been used to the extent originally expected. SALRI found many lawyers and support organisations didn’t know of the CP role, which has only been used in four higher court criminal trials since 2016.

Dr David Plater, Deputy Director of SALRI said: “Of all the vulnerable groups considered as part of SALRI’s research into the communication partner scheme, persons with disabilities and children, especially those from Aboriginal communities, would benefit the greatest from the changes to law and practice we are proposing.”

“There is particular concern in Aboriginal communities about child protection matters. It is not just children who could benefit from communication assistance, but also at least some Aboriginal adults. Any CP model needs to properly cater for the needs of Aboriginal communities.’

SALRI’s report draws on its extensive research and consultation and its diverse multidisciplinary authors and the valuable contribution of the Adelaide Law Reform class. SALRI thanks all parties who contributed to this important project and the Law Foundation of South Australia for providing the necessary funding.

Following the release of SALRI’s report, it will be for the South Australian Government and Parliament to consider the recommendations, and to decide whether or not to accept them.

Further information about SALRI including landmark changes to SA laws as a result of its work can be found on the SALRI website.

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