Guest blogger Magistrate Pauline Spencer writes….

Judicial officers seeing people with substance abuse disorder will often see people who are feeling overwhelmed.

By the time they end up in court they often are experiencing poor physical and mental health and their practical reality is stressful and chaotic.

Often people don’t know where they are heading or how to go about change. They have tried and failed many times before. They are exhausted. They feel a great deal of shame and lack confidence.

This is a common conversation in my mainstream criminal courtroom:

Me:  “what do you need?”.

Participant: “I just need to get a job”.

Me: “So you’re thinking that a job would provide you with some stability in your life, and you’re wanting to take the next step.”

Then there is often a long long pause as the person struggles with the enormity of the prospect of change.

In a previous blog post Magistrate and TJ scholar Michael King shared his goals and strategy approach that he uses with court participants in his mainstream criminal court. Michael discusses the research underpinning this approach and the process he uses.

I have recently adapted this approach to be more visual using the metaphor of stairs.

Access my Goals and Steps worksheet here

As you will see from the worksheet the person’s goals are listed up the top of the steps,  then the steps they wish to take are recorded along the steps.

I have also added two other aspects – “what/who will help me stay on the stairs” and “what might push me off the stairs”.

The Process

I might ask the questions in court – what are your goals? what steps would you like to take to reach your goals? – and write down their answers for them.  I will do this myself if I get a sense they may have limited education, a learning disability or cognitive impairment so as not to embarrass them by asking them to do it. I am thinking that a visual aid such as this might work well for people with cognitive impairment.

Ideally if I can stand the matter down, I give it to the person and ask them to take some time to think about it and record their thoughts themselves outside of court.  Often this will make good use of time if a person is waiting for a community corrections (probation) assessment.  It doesn’t disrupt my list as I can always go on with other cases and it is time effective as the big thinking is done out of court and then my time in court can be shorter and targeted.

As lawyers get to know this process it might be that they can give it to clients before court or while they wait for their matter to be called.

It is also an opportunity to involve people’s’ “recovery community” – workers, supporters, family and friends in the discussion.

When the sheet is complete I take a copy and give them a copy (and others such as family or community corrections/probation staff).

This document is then an aide in any future judicial review hearings discussion about progress or challenges.

Guiding conversations for change

The idea of the steps can be used in the guiding conversations for change I might have in court.  It provides useful concepts to discuss change and it’s challenges like: “one step at a time”, “just taking the first step”, “one step up and a few steps back”, “the steps feel steep at this point, maybe you could take the first step and see where you are then?”

The idea of steps can help a person visualise the small achievements along the way. for example I might say “Do you think by the next review you would be able to show me you have taken the first step of getting to your appointments with your community corrections officer” or “turning up for your first drug assessment appointment” or “dropping into the housing service”.

As judicial officers we can play a vital role in encouraging and guiding rehabilitation for the benefit of the person, their family and the broader community.   Of course we are not treatment professionals but what we say and do in court can bolster the work of the professionals.

We can play our part in helping the person stay on the stairs!

* Do you have an idea or technique you would like to share?  Email: or leave a comment below.

The TJ Court Craft Series provides practical insights and tools for judges interested in therapeutic jurisprudence, problem solving or solution-focused approaches in court. Read other blog posts in the Court Craft Series here.

2 thoughts on “Steps towards change – a tool for judges working with persons with substance abuse disorders (TJ Court Craft Series #12)

  1. This is a very helpful visualization ,pauline , and a great example of converting the underlying insights of addiction science into workable language and approaches that lawyers , judges , and others can use.!
    This blog will also be helpful in animating students about the practical significance of TJ


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