I was on my first rotation at the night time advice bureau in Auburn when I was handed Agnes’ file. Before turning around to call out her name, I had a quick read of her description of the legal matter. It was a criminal matter. There were three charges: Common assault; assault occasioning actual bodily harm; maliciously destroy or damage property. I quickly calculated that my 15-minute allotment might not be enough time to get to the heart of the matter…
Soon after turning around and announcing the name, two women rose and began walking towards me. One of them, as tall as I am and perhaps even more imposing, reached out her hand to me and began thanking me for finding the time to meet with her. As I listened to Agnes, it became clear that she harboured resentment against her ex-partner, one of the persons she allegedly assaulted and who had left her for another woman. This did not sit well with her.
Amidst the hurried talking, Agnes told me that she had to be at court within a few days. However, she was unable to tell me the reason why. The documents she provided at that time yielded no relevant information. Agnes went on to tell me that her ex-partner had left her after she had taken a chance on love for the first time and opened her heart to him. Not only was she terribly hurt by the breakup; she suffered great embarrassment after her ex-partner wrote to senior officials at her place of religious worship, notifying them of the relationship and the breakup of that relationship between the two of them. Soon after, Agnes was required to give account to the senior officials of the allegations made by her ex-partner. This clearly devastated Agnes and so, one day when she saw her ex-partner with his new girlfriend, she ‘lost it’. Agnes was adamant that she never hit the woman but admitted that she did slap her ex-partner.
In my initial conversation with Agnes, it also became evident that there were some mental health issues and upon further investigation, found out that her father was schizophrenic, her mother suffered deep depression and bipolar disorder, and Agnes herself suffered from dysthymia and other mental health conditions. The other woman who accompanied Agnes was her carer because, although Agnes lived independently, she needed assistance managing some of her day to day affairs. Agnes clearly needed our help too.
At the end of our initial session, I asked Agnes to provide me with as much information within the next day or two that would assist me in giving her the legal advice she needed.
Within two days Agnes faxed the remaining documents to my office and after contacting the Parramatta court, I found out that her matter was listed for hearing within days. When I called Agnes to tell her what I had found out from the courts, she replied, “I thought it was a hearing, but I was not sure. Will that be a problem?” How on earth could I prepare for hearing in such a short space of time?! After reading through the documents Agnes provided, there was sufficient evidence to support a finding that Agnes suffered from more than one psychological condition. I concluded that because of her psychological conditions, she was unable to fully appreciate the gravity of her situation.
Under section 32 of the Mental Health (Forensic Provisions) Act 1990, (the Act) if, at the commencement or at any time during the course of the hearing of proceedings before a Magistrate, it appears to the Magistrate that the defendant is (or was at the time of the alleged commission of the offence to which the proceedings relate), developmentally disabled, or suffering from mental illness, or suffering from a mental condition for which treatment is available in a mental health facility, but is not a mentally ill person, the Magistrate may make an order that the Magistrate considers appropriate so as to divert the person from the criminal justice system and place them into treatment.
In our view, the most appropriate order was for Agnes to seek treatment for her psychological condition and not serve any prison term. We arranged for Agnes to be assessed by a mental health practitioner and together with the numerous historical documents showing her receiving treatment over a number of years, we returned to the court ready to plead Agnes’ case.
Following our arguments before the court, the Magistrate considered it more appropriate to deal with Agnes by ordering her to continue in treatment rather than otherwise in accordance with the law. As such, the court made orders, dismissing the charge with Agnes being discharged into the care of her psychologist on the condition that she complies with the treatment plan set out by her treating psychologist.
Quite some time after the file was closed, my telephone rang. I answered it and on the other end of the line, I heard Agnes’ once familiar voice. She called to thank me for what Salvos Legal Humanitarian had done for her. She also thanked us for keeping her out of gaol. She informed me that she was still being treated by her psychologist and although she felt it would take some time, she was feeling good about herself for the first time in a very long time and said that she was finally starting to get over her ex.