Ruling May Spark Reforms to System; Toowoomba Woman's Case Highlights Shortfall in Judicial Process

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Hardwick

THE plight of a 41-year-old intellectually impaired Toowoomba woman and the subsequent expunging of her convictions has the potential to bring wide-ranging reforms to Queensland's justice system.

The woman had appeared in Toowoomba Magistrates Court on numerous occasions and pleaded guilty to mainly minor offences such as shoplifting.

However, in expunging the woman's convictions, the Court of Appeal found that she was incapable of entering pleas of guilty to the charges due to her intellectual disability.

Psychological tests in 2005 subsequently found the woman's full scale IQ was in the lowest one per cent of the population.

Had her charges been indictable, that is, more serious, she could have been dealt with by the Mental Health Court which subsequently found her to be permanently unfit for trial in any case.

However, because her charges were not indictable and were dealt with in the magistrates court, it was feared her pleas of guilty were accepted more in keeping with expediency.

For advocates such as Queensland Criminal Justice Centre director Dan Toombs and co-ordinator Sue Gordon, the case highlighted the fact that magistrates courts were not equipped to deal with some defendants who had mental illness or intellectual disability.

Mr Toombs explained that due to the sheer bulk of matters coming before the magistrates court each day, duty solicitors simply didn't have time to assess defendants with possible intellectual disabilities, even if they had the training to do so, potentially leading to defendants with disabilities pleading guilty to charges they don't even understand.

"There really needs to be a special court set up to where these people can be diverted," Mr Toombs said.

"Brisbane has one a[pounds sterling] the Special Circumstances Court a[pounds sterling] and it should be extended across the state."

Mrs Gordon argues it wouldn't stretch the government's budget by that much to achieve that very aim.

"It could be done through video conferencing which we have now or the court could travel and be set up to hear cases on particular days,a she said.

"We all agree it's nobody's fault but we just have to do it better.

"No-one should be going to jail just because they have a disability. …