Homelessness courts urgently needed in Australia, say lawyers

6th Mar 2020

The conviction of a hungry, homeless man for taking food from a dumpster in Tasmania this week highlights the urgent need for specialist homelessness courts in Australia, according to the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

“It is outrageous that the police even contemplated charging this man,” said Mr Greg Barns, national criminal justice spokesperson, ALA. “He is homeless and he took unwanted food from a bin so that he could eat.  How could this possibly be the business of the criminal law system?”

“The court’s response of a conviction and a fine was inadequate and unsuitable.  If courts are dealing with homeless people they need to be supportive and ensure services such as housing and emergency accommodation can be accessed.

“Homelessness is a social issue, not a criminal justice issue. The increasing criminalisation of homelessness does not help to solve the underlying problems – and often pushes the homeless person even further into trouble.

“Specialist homelessness courts are needed in Australia to provide smart and holistic justice that addresses the underlying causes of the offending.”

A specialist court in Auckland, New Zealand is proving successful at supporting homeless people to ensure that the necessary support is provided to address the underlying causes of the offending and the homelessness, while still holding offenders accountable. Similar courts are in place, and working effectively, in various states in the USA.

“These specialist courts in other countries are showing that this approach can reduce reoffending rates and decrease nights spent in prison and hospital,” said Mr Barns. “Currently homeless people are very poorly served by the criminal justice system in Australia.

“We need to look broadly and innovatively for initiatives that can more fairly and appropriately address the legal needs of homeless people.”

Tags: Criminal justice