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Riboldi, Mark; Hopkins, Sarah --- "Community-led justice reinvestment: Rethinking access to justice" [2019] PrecedentAULA 63; (2019) 154 Precedent 48



By Mark Riboldi and Sarah Hopkins

When we talk about access to justice in the legal sector, often we’re talking about facilitating free legal representation for people and communities who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it. This typically comes via the legal assistance sector: Legal Aid commissions, community legal centres, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services, Family Violence Prevention Legal Services, and court advocacy services.

The broader legal community supports these organisations in a variety of ways; for example, through pro bono or reduced fee representation and by offering logistical support like meeting spaces, catering or printing facilities and services. Providing free legal assistance to people who can’t afford it is a vital public service, keeping people in their homes, ensuring small debts don’t spiral out of control, and enabling people to leave violent relationships.

But how about a kind of access to justice which involves making aspects of the justice system redundant? Fewer courtrooms, fewer prisons, fewer lawyers – what if fewer people came into contact with the justice system in the first place? Because the reality is that so many people’s contact with the justice system is unnecessary, resulting from blockages earlier in the pipeline that send people down a completely wrong path. These blockages could result from outdated laws that fail to reflect modern values; they could be law enforcement practices which prioritise infringement metrics over community wellbeing; they could be systemic flaws which disadvantage particular people and communities. A narrow view of ‘access to justice’ might be a 16-year-old Aboriginal kid getting a free lawyer to defend the offensive language, association and curfew breach charges brought against them by police. More broadly, though, this kid has been forced into the justice system for no good reason. Real access to justice would be fixing the system so that they were nowhere near a courtroom in the first place.


Systemic injustice is exactly the challenge that was facing the Aboriginal community of Bourke in far west NSW. Bourke, with a population less than 3,000, once had the highest crime statistics in NSW across most categories; almost half of the children were at risk of facing developmental vulnerabilities; national media attention came with headlines such as ‘Bourke tops list: More dangerous than any country in the world’.[1] Multiple government reports had identified serious problems with service delivery in the area: characterised by significant gaps in available services, overlaps in service provision, and a general lack of coordination among service providers. Despite the urgent need to address the problem, the solutions coming from government, which had been imposed on the community, weren’t working.[2]

In response, the community took matters into their own hands, establishing the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment initiative in 2013 to ensure better and more coordinated service delivery. In the words of Maranguka Founder and Executive Director, Alistair Ferguson: ‘too many of my community were being locked up. Kids were being taken away. Families were being shattered, again and again. We decided that a new way of thinking and doing things needed to be developed that helped our children.’ Local community leaders had been actively exploring ways to shake up service delivery in Bourke since 2007, which by 2013 had transformed into a whole-of-community agenda under the name Maranguka. The name comes from a word in the local Ngemba language meaning ‘caring for others’. As Alistair says, Maranguka ‘derived from the readiness of the community, which was building some capacity for years. We broke away from essentially relying on government to provide the resources and tools to support our community. We consciously broke away from that, not waiting on government.’

A shift occurred in 2013 when the community began working with Just Reinvest NSW, an organisation auspiced by the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT to advocate for Aboriginal community-led justice reinvestment. Justice reinvestment became popularised in the United States between 2003 and 2008, initially promoted as a place-based, data-driven approach to improving public safety. By focusing on early support services and addressing the drivers of crime, economic savings are made further down the justice pipeline – by reducing the number of people in the court and prison systems. The savings made can then be reinvested further in making these communities safer and stronger places in which to live.

In 2014, Bourke became the first major justice reinvestment site in Australia, supported with funding from two key philanthropic partners and in-kind support from a number of other organisations. Initial government support came through the provision of data, ensuring that the Bourke Tribal Council was able to access the information it needed in order to set community priorities and target outcomes in an overarching strategy called Growing Our Kids Up Safe, Smart & Strong. The funding and in-kind support meant that Maranguka was able to set up the infrastructure for collaboration through working groups and community forums as well as a Cross-Sector Leadership Group.


The results so far speak for themselves. Today, Bourke makes the news with headlines like ‘Tackling crime differently pays off for outback town’[3] and ‘Bourke’s Maranguka hub keeping kids out of prison’.[4] A 2018 KPMG report highlighted key outcomes in Bourke between 2016 and 2017 in three key areas: family strength, youth development and adult empowerment.[5] These include:

 23 per cent reduction in police recorded incidence of domestic violence;

 31 per cent increase in year 12 student retention rates;

 38 per cent reduction in charges across the top five juvenile offence categories;

 14 per cent reduction in bail breaches;

 42 per cent reduction in days spent in custody; and

 35 per cent reduction in the number of people proceeded against for driving offences.

The economic impact of this reduction in crime and increased community safety was estimated by KPMG to have been $3.1 million from 2016-17 – two-thirds as justice savings and one-third in broader economic terms across the region – and five times more than the operating costs of the Maranguka Community Hub over the same period. Other outcomes have included a shift in policing towards early intervention and prevention, improved service coverage and collaboration, and the attracting of investment and employment opportunities, including 40 Aboriginal people from Bourke, Brewarrina and Enngonia employed at a new abattoir. As the Maranguka Community Hub notes, the KPMG Impact Assessment found that ‘justice reinvestment initiatives build local capacity and empower community to develop local solutions to local issues’.[6]

The importance of the leadership and cultural authority that Maranguka and the Bourke Tribal Council bring to the process in achieving these outcomes cannot be understated. In Alistair Ferguson’s words:

‘Aboriginal people have been retreating because we had been let down so many times. We became the eyes in the hill. We watched out over the landscape, watching all these things that were going on and it was to the detriment and expense of Aboriginal people. So we had enough of being in the hills. Now we’re doing our part and what we’re saying is “look, we’ve tried it your way and you’ve failed. Now give us a go.”’[7]

Factors that have arisen from the Aboriginal community’s leadership that are key to Maranguka’s success are relentless collaboration, identification and implementation of ‘circuit breakers’, and a multi-pronged approach to family violence. Sitting across the entire change process is Maranguka’s Shared Outcomes and Indicators Framework which ensures that progress is tracked in accordance with the community’s goals and targets.


Collaboration is present across everything that Maranguka does, but nowhere is this more evident than in the Maranguka Hub Check-ins. Every morning the backbone team, Bourke Police and various frontline service providers meet to discuss issues from the previous 24 hours – including domestic violence incidents, suspensions, children being out on the street late, reports regarding child safety and youth crime. Emerging issues are responded to immediately, and action updates are provided the following day. This process has created a culture of action, accountability and connected and informed responses to issues. It has also broken down silos through information sharing. This all means that community members receive the most appropriate response to the challenges they are facing. The Maranguka Hub Check-ins have improved service delivery and coverage based on community needs and are an informed and joined-up response to reduce crime. As Bourke Inspector Andrew Hurst says, police ‘... have more ability to connect services to people who need them, rather than arresting people who have underlying issues’. Alistair Ferguson says, ‘We are often seen as a bridge between the community and the government system.’

When the community began on the justice reinvestment path, it recognised that while real change takes time, seeing immediate results can help to engage and motivate people. This is why in 2014 a series of initial ‘circuit breakers’ were put in place to try and have an immediate impact on the way that young people in Bourke interacted with the justice system. Looking at the crime data they had, the community asked themselves what the most pressing issues were, then looked at the existing resources and strengths in the community, and particularly which service providers might be willing to try something new. This led, for example, to the negotiation of new bail protocols between the Police, Maranguka and the Aboriginal Legal Service around ‘bail conditions, breaches, warnings and the use of arrest’.[8] With an additional funding grant, a driver licensing program was established through which over 300 people obtained their drivers licence, significantly reducing the number of driver-licensing offences. Working with the Aboriginal Legal Service and Local Court Magistrate, Maranguka has been able to reduce the number of warrants being issued, which in turn increases people’s participation in work and education and reduces homelessness and recidivism. Developing and implementing these successes have helped to create ‘buy in’ from both the community and service providers around the broader process of justice reinvestment.

Another significant development in Bourke has been the drafting of a collaboration agreement that formalises collaborative partnerships across services, agencies and organisations involved in reducing family and domestic violence. The draft agreement was developed through a workshop convened by Maranguka involving 18 local service and agency workers, and built on previous work exploring changes in rates of family and domestic violence in Bourke and the collaboration leading to those changes. The aim of the draft agreement is to build on the success of a number of collaborative and effective early support initiatives developed with Maranguka. For example, through Operation Solidarity, someone from the community or a service accompanies police to homes where there has been a domestic violence incident, to check in with people and see what supports might be required. Through the Gawimarra Burrany Ngurung (Picking up the Pieces) initiative, a five-member team including a mental health nurse provides wrap around support for families who have experienced family and domestic violence. The collaborative partnership agreement will formalise the commitment of the various service providers working in the area of family and domestic violence to regularly meet and work together to increase safety in the community. The agreement and collaboration mean that the service providers are collectively focused on achieving the goals of the community, rather than the individual goals of their organisations alone.

Community leadership

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of what’s happening in Bourke is that the local Aboriginal community, via the Bourke Tribal Council, leads Maranguka. This, as Alistair says, ‘is a treaty, because we’ve agreed to come together, leave whatever issues we may have and come in for the common good of the community. It’s redefining self-determination. What is unique now is sitting at the table – be it with the philanthropic sector, the corporate sector or government – the community is sitting in the driver’s seat.’ Maranguka has been recognised by the Australian Centre for Social Innovation as creating conditions for lasting leadership in Bourke: ‘One of the key strengths of work in Bourke is that there are Aboriginal-led community level governance and steering bodies that can shift the balance of ownership and control back towards community.’[9]

Despite the success and media attention, Alistair and the team are careful to manage expectations and make sure that community development and well-being are at the core of Maranguka’s work. ‘The reality of how we’ve been treated as Aboriginal people for the last 230 years is there has been a lot of injustice,’ he says. ‘Justice comes in all shapes and forms and from the littlest things to the big things. A lot of that’s got to do with our people wanting to be heard and to share their experience, but a step before that is building people’s confidence to get to that point. In a lot of cases our people need to heal and get stuff off their chest and only once that happens then you can sit down and have a strategic conversation.’

The community-led outcomes in Bourke have led to the government adapting to the community agenda. Authorised through the Cross-Sector Leadership Group, government services are working more systemically and collaboratively and Maranguka principles and the Safe, Smart & Strong goals and targets are now being embedded into local service delivery contracts and government work plans. While increasing government buy-in and participation is welcome, it is critical that community ownership is maintained.


A core recommendation underpinning the Australian Law Reform Commission’s March 2017 report, Pathways to Justice – Inquiry into the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, was that state and federal governments should pursue a ‘justice reinvestment’ approach.[10] Neither the Australian nor NSW governments have formally responded to the Pathways to Justice report. However, both governments have now provided support after five years of philanthropic funding to Maranguka Justice Reinvestment via the Department of Social Services’ Stronger Places, Stronger People. The NSW Department of Justice has also provided a small grant until September 2019 to Just Reinvest NSW for one year to work with other communities in NSW that are interested in exploring whether a justice reinvestment approach would work for them. This acknowledges that Maranguka has acted as a lighthouse to other communities. Over 20 communities have approached Maranguka and Just Reinvest NSW over the last five years and are interested in working in a similar way to Maranguka. The communities that Just Reinvest NSW have started working with closely – Moree, Mt Druitt and Armidale – are each demonstrating a strong commitment to a community-led justice reinvestment approach.

But more funding – and a different funding model – are required. A May 2019 report by the ten20 Foundation found that Australia currently lacks ‘funding support for the infrastructure, leadership and culture’ to support community-led innovation.[11] Problems identified included the piecemeal, fragmented and time-limited nature of funding available, along with the stringent conditions for acquitting and reporting funding. These problems, common across both government and philanthropic funding-sources, work to undermine community leadership and ownership. Short-term and tied funding might gift funders with ‘announceables’ to fit into their public relations or re-election strategies, but for communities and community-led organisations it means a denial of cultural authority and self-determination. The intent might not be to put limits on community control and innovation, but the experience of many community organisations is that over time, the funding environment means that organisations spend more and more time responding to reporting requirements rather than the needs of communities. One of the key factors in Bourke’s success has been the flexibility and longer-term investment of its key funders. The result is that the Bourke community has been able to establish the infrastructure for success and independence and demonstrate the outcomes to attract ongoing buy-in and investment.


Through Maranguka, the Bourke community is removing the blockages in the system that were sending people into the justice system and creating better pathways for young people. Having demonstrated success, the challenge for community-led justice reinvestment in Australia is to ensure that new funding from philanthropists and governments enables communities to set their own agenda and drive the change process. In Bourke, positive justice outcomes have resulted from self-determination. The community has led a path towards access to justice that has direct meaning and impact for individual community members who had been coming into contact with the criminal justice system. As Alistair Ferguson says: ‘At the end of the day it’s about the best outcomes and the best results, particularly for our children.’

Mark Riboldi is the Advocacy & Communications Manager at Community Legal Centres NSW and on the Executive Committee of Just Reinvest NSW. EMAIL

Sarah Hopkins is Chair of Just Reinvest NSW and the Managing Solicitor of Justice Projects at the Aboriginal Legal Service ACT/NSW. EMAIL

[1] R Olding and N Ralston, ‘Bourke tops list: More dangerous than any country in the world, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 February 2013.

[2] See, for example: Special Commission of Inquiry into Child Protection Service in New South Wales (November 2008), Report of the Special Commission of Inquiry into Child Protection Service in NSW, Vol. 1, 257, 7.281; and the NSW Ombudsman (December 2010), Inquiry into service provision to the Bourke and Brewarrina communities.

[3] N Berkovic, ‘Tackling crime differently pays off for outback town, The Australian, 27 November 2018.

[4] B Fryer, ‘Bourke’s Maranguka hub keeping kids out of prison’, NITV, 28 November 2019.

[5] KPMG, Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project: Impact Assessment (27 November 2018).

[6] Maranguka Community Hub, Maranguka Justice Reinvestment – the first five years (June 2019).

[7] Just Reinvest NSW, Justice Reinvestment Toolkit (2018) 11

[8] Ibid, 39.

[9] TACSI, Changing lives: How Bourke is addressing family violence + working to ensure all families are safe, smart + strong (2019) 15.

[10] Australian Law Reform Commission, Pathways to Justice – Inquiry into the incarceration rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, ALRC Report 133, March 2018.

[11] ten20 Foundation, Funding community-led place based practice – insights and actions for funders and communities (May 2019).

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