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



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Chapter 5. Participation in the legal system


    What if you don’t know how the court system works, what if you are too embarrassed to admit you don’t know what to say or do? Or admit that you are scared, or that you have anxiety, or you have a mental illness and you can’t cope? What if you don’t know who to talk to?1

As noted in Chapter 3, people with a mental illness experience a range of legal issues. As a result, people with a mental illness may come into contact with particular legal processes. This chapter will focus on the barriers that face people with a mental illness and prevent them from effectively participating in such legal processes. For the purposes of this chapter, ‘participation in the legal system’ includes participation in courts and tribunals, internal appeals processes of government departments (e.g. Centrelink), alternative dispute resolution (ADR), and other external complaints processes (e.g. NSW Ombudsman).

This study identified a number of barriers preventing people from initiating legal proceedings and participating effectively in proceedings once commenced. These included:

  • stress
  • cognitive impairment
  • problems with time management
  • communication problems
  • features of the courtroom environment
  • features of ADR
  • a lack of legal representation
  • perceived credibility of people with a mental illness
  • failure to identify or recognise a person’s mental illness.

This chapter will also look at the features of legal processes that enable people with a mental illness to participate effectively. These include:
  • flexible service delivery
  • therapeutic jurisprudence.


Consultation with disability awareness trainer, August 2004.

 Consultation with disability awareness trainer, August 2004.


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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