Merit Program: The NSW Courts Diversionary Pathway for Drug & Alcohol Addicts

 

What is the MERIT program?

The MERIT program is an opportunity for those who suffer from drug or alcohol addiction, who end up going to court to face criminal charges in the Local Court to assist in rehabilitation. ‘MERIT’ is an abbreviation for ‘Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment’.

A plea of ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ is not required to be entered in order to participate into the program. The purpose of the program is to treat and rehabilitate to reduce offending contributed by the use of drugs.

Successful completion of the MERIT program will allow the Magistrate to reduce the sentencing penalty, which can result in an offender avoiding full time jail, and in other cases avoid a conviction even after pleading guilty to a criminal charge.

The MERIT program can also address those with alcohol addiction through participation and completion of the alcohol MERIT program.

Common candidates for the MERIT program are those facing drug offences in NSW.

 

Availability of MERIT Program in NSW Local Courts

The MERIT program is available in over fifty NSW Local Courts. To participate, a person charged (‘accused person’) will need to be referred for an assessment. An accused person may contact his/her closest Local Court registry for details on nearest location and availability for assessment.

Criteria and process of the MERIT Program

In order to participate into the MERIT program, a person must first be referred for assessment to determine whether he/she is suitable or not.

If not suitable, then he/she will not be able to participate into the program, in which case the normal criminal justice process re-commences, bringing the person back before the court to be dealt with according to law where he/she must either plead guilty or not guilty to the charge(s).

 

Who can refer an accused person into MERIT?

Almost anyone can, including a police officer, the accused person, defence lawyer, Magistrate/Judge or any other person including family, friend, doctor, or probation and parole officer.

For example, as experienced Sydney criminal lawyers, we can identify whether an accused person is suitable for assessment into the MERIT program.

 

What are the eligibility requirements to participate in MERIT?

To be allowed to participate into the MERIT program, the accused person must:

  • Be an adult
  • Be facing a criminal charge that is not a sexual charge or a ‘strictly indictable’ charge (which is such a serious charge that it can only be dealt with in the District or Supreme Court)
  • Not be facing like charges pending in court
  • Be suspected of using drugs, or have a history of same
  • Be eligible for and be suitable for being released on bail
  • Voluntarily agree to participating in the program

 

What’s the process?

Once an accused person meets the eligibility criteria outlined above, he/she can be referred for a MERIT assessment, which is connected with the participating local court registry in order for an assessment to take place to determine suitability to participate in the program.

The court will adjourn the case for a short period of time in order for the assessment process to take place.

In the interim, the referred accused person will be assessed by a MERIT case worker. This assessment will involve assessing the extent of the drug addiction and any other related issues, including mental health.

The MERIT case worker will consider the suitability criteria for participation before drafting a proposed treatment plan for the accused person, and an assessment report for the court.

When the case comes back before the court on the next occasion, the Magistrate will read the treatment plan and assessment report. If the assessment report says that he/she is suitable for participation into MERIT, the Magistrate may approve the accused person’s participation into MERIT, otherwise the accused will be required to enter a plea of ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ and be dealt with in the usual way through the criminal justice system.

 

What treatment is provided in the MERIT program?

Once an accused person has been approved into the MERIT program, a MERIT case worker will draft a treatment plan.

The treatment plan will be based on the accused person’s risks, needs and goals before determining the best suited treatment service(s) available in the accused person’s best interest.

The treatment programs may include, medically supervised and home based detoxification; methadone, and other pharmacotherapies; residential rehabilitation and individual, and group counselling and psychiatric counselling. It may also include urine drug tests.

 

How long does the MERIT program go for?

The program goes on for an intensive 12 week period. In special circumstances, this can be increased by agreement from the relevant parties involved, including the Magistrate, case worker and the accused person.

During the MERIT program treatment period, the court will manage the process. This means, that after an accused person is accepted into MERIT, the court will require him/her to return to court for updates as to progress at various intervals during the program.

At each interval court appearance, the MERIT case worker will produce an updated report as to the progress. Unless the accused person has been excused from attending the interval court appearances, attendance will be required.

At the final court appearance, at the conclusion of the MERIT program, a final MERIT report will be prepared. The accused person will be required to then enter a plea of ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’. After which time, the court will continue in its normal court process.

If the accused person enters a plea of ‘guilty’ at this stage, and upon successful completion of the MERIT program, reflected in the final MERIT report, the Magistrate will take this into consideration in favour of the accused person during sentence often leading to a much better court result.

 

What happens if MERIT is not successfully completed?

Unsuccessful completion of MERIT does not mean that the accused person will be punished harsher on sentence.

 

What does the final MERIT report outline?

The final MERIT report will outline to the Magistrate, the accused person’s achievements and any breaches or non-compliance.

 

Breach of MERIT Program: What Happens?

If an accused person fails to comply with the MERIT program directions or treatment plan; or fails the MERIT program altogether, the court will be notified by the MERIT case worker.

The matter will be relisted before the court, at which time the Magistrate will have discretion as to whether or not to continue the MERIT program. In the event the Magistrate removes the accused person from the MERIT program, or if the accused person voluntarily withdraws from it, the court will not punish the accused person for it. Rather, the court will proceed with the case as it normally would in the court process.

Any breaches or non-compliance of the MERIT program will be reflected in the interim and the final MERIT report.

MERIT Courts Contact Details

Below is a list of all the selected Local Court registries who participate in the MERIT program:

 

Albion Park

Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District
Tel: 4254 2700
Fax: 4254 2771

Junee

Murrumbidgee Local Health District
Tel: 6923 5761
Fax: 6923 5751

Parramatta

Western Sydney Local Health District
Tel: 9840 3474
Fax: 8838 2025

Ballina

Northern NSW Local Health District
Tel: 6620 7650
Fax: 6621 6212

Katoomba

Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District
Tel: 4734 2131
Fax: 4734 3145

Penrith

Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District
Tel: 4734 2131
Fax: 4734 3145

Bankstown

South Western Sydney Local Health District
Tel: 8778 0700
Fax: 8778 0768

Kempsey

Mid North Coast Local Health District
Tel: 6586 6030
Fax: 6586 6040

Picton

South Western Sydney Local Health District
Tel: 8788 0700
Fax: 8788 0768

# Bathurst

Western NSW Local Health District
Phone: 6369 2070
Fax: 6361 4629

Kiama

Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District
Tel: 4254 2700
Fax: 4254 2771

Port Kembla

Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District
Tel: 4254 2700
Fax: 4254 2771

Blacktown

Western Sydney Local Health District
Tel: 9840 3474
Fax: 8838 2025

Kyogle

Northern NSW Local Health District
Tel: 6620 7650
Fax: 6621 6212

Port Macquarie

Mid North Coast Local Health District
Tel: 6586 6030
Fax: 6586 6040

Blayney

Western NSW Local Health District
Phone: 6369 2070
Fax: 6361 4629

Lismore

Northern NSW Local Health District
Tel: 6620 7650
Fax: 6621 6212

Queanbeyan

Southern NSW Local Health District
Tel: 6299 1725
Fax: 6299 1426

# Broken Hill

Far West NSW Local Health District
Tel: (08) 8088 7199
Fax: (08) 8087 8970

Liverpool

South Western Sydney Local Health District
Tel: 8778 0700
Fax: 8778 0768

Raymond Terrace

Hunter New England Local Health District
Tel: 4016 4656
Fax: 4016 4661

Burwood

Sydney Local Health District
Tel: 9515 7611
Fax: 9515 3722

Maclean

Northern NSW Local Health District
Tel: 6620 7650
Fax: 6621 6212

Singleton

Hunter New England Local Health District
Tel: 6543 2677
Fax: 6541 4004

Byron Bay

Northern NSW Local Health District
Tel: (07) 5506 7010
Fax: (07) 5506 7022

Maitland

Hunter New England Local Health District
Tel: 4016 4656
Fax: 4016 4661

Sutherland

South Eastern Sydney Local Health District
Tel: 9540 7464
Fax: 9540 7579

Campbelltown

South Western Sydney Local Health District
Tel: 8778 0700
Fax: 8778 0768

Manly

Northern Sydney Local Health District
Tel: 9462 9199
Fax: 9439 2973

Tamworth

Hunter New England Local Health District
Tel: 6766 8081
Fax: 6766 8083

Casino

Northern NSW Local Health District
Tel: 6620 7650
Fax: 6621 6212

Milton

Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District
Tel: 4422 5822
Fax: 4422 9684

Toronto

Hunter New England Local Health District
Tel: 4016 4656
Fax: 4016 4661

Cessnock

Hunter New England Local Health District
Tel: 4016 4656
Fax: 4016 4661

Mt Druitt

Western Sydney Local Health District
Tel: 9840 3474
Fax: 8838 2025

Tweed Heads

Northern NSW Local Health District
Tel: (07) 5506 7010
Fax: (07) 5506 7022

# Coffs Harbour

Mid North Coast Local Health District
Tel: 6650 0126
Fax: 6650 0098

Mullimbimby

Northern NSW Local Health District
Tel: (07) 5506 7010
Fax: (07) 5506 7022

Wagga Wagga

Murrumbidgee Local Health District
Tel: 6923 5761
Fax: 6923 5751

Cooma

Southern NSW Local Health District
Tel: 6299 1725
Fax: 6299 1426

Murwillumbah

Northern NSW Local Health District
Tel: 6620 7650
Fax: 6621 6212

Wauchope

Mid North Coast Local Health District
Tel: 6586 6030
Fax: 6586 6040

Downing Centre

South Eastern Sydney Local Health District
Tel: 9332 8788
Fax: 9332 8789

Muswellbrook

Hunter New England Local Health District
Tel: 6543 2677
Fax: 6541 4004

Waverley

South Eastern Sydney Local Health District
Tel: 9211 9277
Fax: 9281 5490

# Dubbo

Western NSW Local Health District
Tel: 6881 4064
Fax: 6885 4577

Newcastle

Hunter New England Local Health District
Tel: 4016 4656
Fax: 4016 4661

# Wellington

Western NSW Local Health District
Tel: 6884 7089
Fax: 6885 4577

Fairfield

South Western Sydney Local Health District
Tel: 8778 0700
Fax: 8778 0768

Newtown

Sydney Local Health District
Tel: 9515 7611
Fax: 9515 3722

# Wilcannia

Far West NSW Local Health District
Tel: (08) 8088 7199
Fax: (08) 8087 8970

Forbes

Western NSW Local Health District
Phone: 6369 2070
Fax: 6361 4629

Nowra

Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District

Tel: 4422 5822
Fax: 4422 9684

Wollongong

Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District
Tel: 4254 2700
Fax: 4254 2771

Gosford

Central Coast Local Health District
Tel: 4320 3057
Fax: 4320 2423

Oberon

Western NSW Local Health District
Tel: 6392 6800
Fax: 6392 6805

Woy Woy

Central Coast Local Health District
Tel: 4320 3057
Fax: 4320 2423

Grafton

Northern NSW Local Health District
Tel: 6620 7650
Fax: 6621 6212

# Orange

Western NSW Local Health District
Phone: 6369 2070
Fax: 6361 4629

Wyong

Central Coast Local Health District
Tel: 4356 9300
Fax: 4356 9305

Hornsby

Northern Sydney Local Health District
Tel: 9462 9199
Fax: 9439 2973

Parkes

Western NSW Local Health District
Phone: 6369 2070
Fax: 6361 4629

Those with “#” above also provide alcohol MERIT treatment.

About Jimmy Singh

Mr. Jimmy Singh is the Principal Lawyer at Criminal Defence Lawyers Australia - Leading Criminal Lawyers in Sydney, Delivering Exceptional Results in all Australian Criminal Courts.

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