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Research Report: Taking justice into custody: summary report, Justice issues paper 2
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Taking justice into custody: summary report, Justice issues paper 2  ( 2008 )  Cite this report

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Pathways and intermediaries

Our interviews indicated that inmates rely to a high degree on other people to help address their legal issues. These people, or intermediaries, may act on the prisoners’ behalf or as a relay point in the process of preventing, identifying or addressing a legal problem. Our analysis revealed that there are a number of features of intermediaries and mediated pathways to legal help that facilitate an inmate’s access to justice or act as a barrier.

So I spend a great deal of time contacting solicitors and saying, ‘What’s happening?’, ‘These are the concerns that the inmates have, these are the questions that the inmate has and when are you coming to see them?’ You are very much acting as that middle person.
— DCS welfare officer

Firstly, although there appeared to be numerous people prepared to assist with tasks associated with a legal problem, inmates often expressed confusion about who was the best person to approach, particularly in the first instance. Pathways to assistance with legal problems were fragmented and obscured by a number of practices: lack of information detailing appropriate contacts, several different staff groups covering the same task, tasks designated to one group being taken over by another, and different people within the one occupational group having varying degrees of knowledge and consequent capacity to assist. Inmates tend to respond to this uncertainty either by giving up the pursuit or approaching several intermediaries for the same issue simultaneously, thereby doubling up on the use of resources and further entrenching the confusion surrounding the question of responsibility.

Secondly, a major issue that arose particularly in relation to custodial staff was the lack of consistency and clarity in the assistance given to prisoners. A prisoner may feel uncertain about who to contact for assistance, when, in their experience, one officer in a certain position may have been helpful, yet another officer in the same position at a different time had not been particularly useful. The assistance provided may depend on the mood or disposition of the individual officer, rather than their position. This can reinforce uncertainty about where to go for help.

Thirdly, mediated processes seem to delay help, with many interviewees describing apparently cumbersome processes to achieve relatively simple tasks. As a consequence, inmates would in some cases abandon seeking help because they felt it would take too long. In other cases, inmates missed an opportunity to address a legal issue or prepare effectively for a hearing. As the contingencies increased with every pair of hands a matter passed through, so did the opportunity for a breakdown or delay to occur.

The final factor that affected the utility of intermediaries was the potential for exploitation or being (unintentionally) misled because of the relationship of dependency that mediated pathways create. This sub-theme was mainly an issue where personal intermediaries (as opposed to ‘professional’ intermediaries such as DCS staff or staff of other organisations) were used. Although inmate peers were an easily accessible and often a preferable source of assistance with legal problems, the sensitive nature of the matters could sometimes place an inmate at risk of privacy breaches. In other cases the inmate may lose money, property or have debts incurred in their name because they have had to ask friends or family to pay bills, mind property or oversee their finances. In yet other instances, inmates may be given incorrect or incomplete information.


Grunseit, A, Forell, S & McCarron, E 2008, Taking justice into custody: the legal needs of prisoners - summary report, Justice issues paper 2, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney