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Justice Project approaches the Bench


Anastasia Sagris-Desmond, photo: Leith Hillard

When supporting their clients caught up in the criminal justice system, Gambler’s Help Southern wasn’t alone in noticing a pattern. While drug and alcohol addiction might be considered mitigating factors by magistrates during sentencing, gambling harm was the opposite.

‘If anything, it’s considered an aggravating factor,’ says clinical team leader Anastasia Sagris-Desmond. ‘It’s seen as greed or a lifestyle choice. In the legal field, gambling isn’t yet recognised as a legitimate public health or justice issue.

‘We saw a need to advocate for our clients to ensure they weren’t isolated from the supports that are most likely to help them not re-offend.’

Justice reform and social change

Arising from this concern, the Justice Project was established in 2016 as a partnership between Gambler’s Help Southern and a local community legal service – Anastasia calls it a ‘synergy’. It’s aiming high, seeking to create legislative reform and social change in the understanding of gambling harm as a legitimate mental health issue.

‘Gambling isn’t yet recognised as a legitimate public health or justice issue.’
Anastasia Sagris-Desmond, Gambler’s Help Southern

The first step, however, has been educating the legal fraternity about gambling harm as a significant concern that often presents alongside mental health issues, drugs, alcohol and homelessness.

Fortunately the project found an early champion. Lawyer Suzan Gencay who often works with Gambler’s Help Southern raised the issues with Deputy Chief Magistrate Jelena Popovic, who was not only encouraging but offered her practical support. She helped the project distribute factsheets to all Victorian lawyers and magistrates and facilitated a one-hour information session at a professional development day for magistrates.

Anastasia wore her therapeutic counsellor hat and presented alongside her financial counsellor and community education colleagues to 80 magistrates.

‘We gave a case study of a client with a background of mental health issues and family violence who had racked up a lot of e-TAG fines,’ she explains.

‘This person received therapeutic counselling and our financial counsellor did a statement of position. Our advocacy helped get the case heard at the Assessment and Referral Court where the client could access ongoing support services and where there tends to be a lower rate of recidivism.

‘Historically there has been apprehension about approaching magistrates without a slick product, but they were so receptive. We talked about shame and stigma and they asked a lot of questions.

‘Magistrates are very human.’

The suggestion was made to include Gambler’s Help referral information in the Bench Book, a community support services directory used by magistrates. Gambler’s Help is now keen to talk to the Department of Justice about getting it included in the special circumstances list as a mitigating factor.

‘‘Magistrates are very human.’
Anastasia Sagris-Desmond, Gambler’s Help Southern

While gambling used to be grouped with impulse control disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), it now appears in the substance-use disorders category alongside drugs and alcohol. The psychiatric and medical authority behind this reordering has certainly given the Justice Project greater traction with magistrates.

Gambling in the mix with drugs and alcohol

The training has also been rolled out to community legal service lawyers, complemented with a presentation on preparing cases for court by lawyer Suzan Gencay.

The aim now is for the training to reach a wider range of Justice staff across Corrections Victoria, with Victoria Police also expressing their interest.

Gambling can co-occur with a range of crimes, including family violence. Gambler’s Help Southern clients might be referred pre-sentencing or come via Corrections Victoria after sentencing, sometimes as a result of a community-based order.

The training challenges lawyers to just ask during a client’s pre-sentencing if gambling is an issue that needs to be considered in the mix with other co-occurring issues such as drug and alcohol use.

‘We’re raising gambling harm as a public health issue away from victim blaming.’
Anastasia Sagris-Desmond, Gambler’s Help Southern

‘If magistrates can see that they’ve sought help with their gambling before sentencing, it’s a good sign,’ says Anastasia. ‘They’re taking responsibility and working towards not re-offending.’

A standardised online training package will be developed with the assistance of the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation. With new graduates entering the legal profession every year, the Justice Project hopes to embed the training within the legal education system either as core content or an elective. In addition, they’re working towards the package achieving professional development certification.

‘We’re raising gambling harm as a public health issue away from victim blaming,’ explains Anastasia. ‘There are societal factors such as loneliness, drug and alcohol abuse, an abundance of gaming apps and enticements to gamble all bundled up to entice vulnerable people to self-soothe.

‘By working with the upper reaches of the legal profession, we’re trying to alleviate some of the issues down in the trenches.’

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