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On the edge of justice: the legal needs of people with a mental illness  ( 2006 )  Cite this report

Ch 5. Participation in the legal system

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According to consultations, barriers such as stress, cognitive impairment, problems with time management, communication problems and complicated legal technology may prevent people with a mental illness from complying with timeframes, understanding legal documents, and understanding what is occurring once they are at court.

Confronted with these barriers, people with a mental illness may benefit from a higher level of assistance, and a simplification of the application process, particularly in terms of filling out forms and lodging complaints. People with a mental illness who are affected by stress, and who have problems with time management, may also benefit from a case management approach throughout the legal process.

Consultations also indicated that individual barriers are exacerbated by the structure and features of the courtroom environment. They suggested that the formality of the courtroom can be intimidating to people with a mental illness, and that its lack of flexibility can also prevent people from communicating effectively with their lawyers. Even the atmosphere and the physical environment of the courtroom were reported as being intimidating and frightening for some people with a mental illness.

Service providers argued that less formal and less adversarial legal processes may not be as stressful for people with a mental illness. Furthermore, a greater awareness of their needs and a greater flexibility within court processes would also be beneficial. The principles of therapeutic jurisprudence, which in addition to referring people to therapeutic services also encourage more direct engagement between judges and defendants, and a less adversarial environment, may also be highly beneficial.

To some extent, ADR is a lot more flexible, and was considered by service providers to be more appropriate for people with a mental illness. However, it was not considered as beneficial to people with a mental illness, if they were unrepresented. Indeed, the importance of both legal representation and general support for people with a mental illness in any legal process was stressed in consultations.

Of course, recognition of the needs of people with a mental illness during the legal process is also dependent on the fact that a mental illness has actually been identified as such. However, it is apparent that people are not always identified as having a mental illness. Consultations for this study also highlighted the perception by those in the legal system that people with a mental illness are less honest and less credible as a result of their illness. Training workers in the legal system about disability awareness may overcome problems relating to identification and misperceptions about credibility.


Karras, M, McCarron, E, Gray, A & Ardasinski, S 2006, On the edge of justice: the legal needs of people with a mental illness in NSW, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney