Legal leaders gather in Dubbo as ‘unjust’ MERIT suspension hurts vulnerable defendants


Presidents of Regional Law Societies along with NSW President Cassandra Banks and the Law Society Council have converged on Dubbo to discuss issues affecting the legal profession across the state.

Ms Banks said the annual tradition of the Law Society leadership to meet outside Sydney presents a valuable opportunity to advocate for improvements to the delivery of justice services in rural, regional and remote areas of the state, including Orana.

“Dubbo is an important regional centre in NSW and deserves justice services fit for the surrounding area. My long experience as a regionally based lawyer underlies my determination that solicitors in the bush, as well as their clients, aren’t disadvantaged by where they live and work,” Ms Banks said.

“That’s why I’m very concerned about the ongoing suspension in Dubbo of the Magistrate’s Early Referral Into Treatment (MERIT) program. This program is essential to ensuring Local Court defendants, whose substance abuse issues contribute to their offending, get a chance to get their lives back on track before being sentenced.”

New referrals to MERIT have been suspended until at least Monday, 10 July because of staffing issues.

The 12-week MERIT program enables eligible defendants to receive rehabilitation and treatment for their drug or alcohol issues. When defendants appear for sentencing at the end of the program, the progress they’ve made in MERIT is taken into account by the magistrate.

President of the Orana Regional Law Society Jennifer Spear said even the temporary removal of MERIT as an option for defendants before Dubbo Local Court is unjust.

“Participants in MERIT are often some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in the community. The suspension of the program in Dubbo means solicitors managing these cases are unable to obtain positive and potentially life repairing results for clients,” Ms Spear said.

“The strict eligibility requirements for a referral to the Dubbo Drug Court combined with the suspension of MERIT means that many people with drug and alcohol problems are falling through the cracks. For some, successful completion of the MERIT program means the difference between incarceration or a community-based sentence.”

“Ms Banks and I call on the Health Minister and Attorney General to work together on an urgent solution to ensure people in this region who need MERIT to get their lives on track can access the help they need.”

The Council of the Law Society of NSW meets later today, while the Presidents of NSW’s Regional Law Societies will gather tomorrow.

Damien Smith | Director, Media and Public Relations
The Law Society of New South Wales

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