We spoke with Sheriff Iain Fleming who has presided over the Glasgow Alcohol Court since it was established.
The Glasgow Alcohol Court opened in February 2018. Initially it was presided over by Sheriff Iain Fleming who has now been joined in the court by two other Sheriffs, namely Sheriff Joan Kerr and Sheriff Gerard Bonnar. The Alcohol Court aims to reduce rates of offending by supporting people who offend with their underlying alcohol issues. Sheriff Fleming notes that if you help individuals to address their alcohol issues, then you can often address their criminality as well a range of other issues that they may be experiencing. The court initially began as a six-month pilot but is now a permanent feature of the Glasgow Sheriff’s Court.
During the pilot period, the need for engagement with local addiction services, residential and medical facilities, Alcoholics Anonymous and social workers was prioritised in order to further understand the needs of those who offend, to develop strong professional relationships and publicise the existence of a new problem-solving court for individuals with alcohol difficulties. This has led to greater engagement and partnership working between the court and the community agencies. Although the court has only been running a little over two years, it has become an important part of the court programme. The court sits most Mondays with an average of between 15 and 20 people appearing each week.
The Alcohol Court only deals with matters post-conviction and accepts individuals who have been convicted of charges involving violence or dishonesty, public order offences or drink driving offences. Individuals must reside in Glasgow and must have previous convictions that relate to their alcohol abuse. Many of these individuals are caught in a cycle of addiction and offending, often appearing regularly in the Sheriff’s Court as a result. They are referred following their conviction by Sheriffs who have identified the impact that alcohol has on their offending behaviour.
The eligibility criteria were modified and extended following the pilot period in order to include those convicted of domestic abuse offences. All three Sheriffs in the Alcohol Court are trained to deal with court cases relating to both substance misuse and domestic abuse. Individuals who are deemed suitable for the Alcohol Court are usually given a Community-based Order and must strictly comply with all requirements within the Order.
Once accepted into the Alcohol Court participants receive intensive support from their Criminal Justice Social Worker (CJSW) and a substance misuse worker. They must engage in alcohol counselling treatment, regular supervision, and attend monthly review hearings before the Sheriff. The CJSWs and addiction workers prepare monthly reports for each individual on the programme which ensures that the Sheriff is informed about the individual’s progress, as well as any setbacks or compliance concerns. The sentencing process lasts between one and two years with the option to reduce the frequency of the judicial review hearings as the individual progresses.
The Glasgow Alcohol Court takes a problem-solving approach and integral to this approach is the relationship between the judge and the individual on the court order. Individuals appear before the same Sheriff throughout and are given the opportunity to interact directly with the bench. Compliance is maintained through intensive judicial monitoring, and the Sheriff provides praise, encouragement and where necessary robust admonition, in order to motivate continued progress and change. Alcohol testing is not a requirement of the programme as abstinence is not the overall aim of the court, which is the reduction in alcohol consumption such that an individual will desist from offending. For some, however, complete abstention is the only way to achieve this aim.
One of the key features of the court is the inclusion of the individual’s family members in the programme. As well as the reports provided by the CJSW and addiction worker, the Sheriff asks family members for updates on how an individual has been progressing between review hearings. This offers an additional element of motivation for many participants.
Some of those who complete the programme receive a certificate of completion from the addiction support service Addaction, but there is still discussion about whether a graduation ceremony should be introduced to mark the participants’ achievements. The Court is still new and Sheriff Fleming states that they are continuing to learn about what works.
Sheriff Fleming states that individuals can begin the programme almost immediately and he recognises the importance of offering the right support to people while their motivation is high. This along with consistent judicial engagement, strong partnership working and community support are essential components. Finally, the support from the Sheriff Principal, social work team, the court team and outside agencies has been invaluable to the successful establishment and continued operation of the court.
In total, approximately 150-200 people are accepted to the Alcohol Court each year. A tangible evaluation of progress has not yet been initiated but Sheriff Fleming states that extensive data is collected for monitoring purposes and in preparation for an evaluation. Sheriff Fleming advises that a significant reduction in offending must be demonstrated in order to be considered a success. He estimates a success rate of over 80% and also highlights the wider community benefits that addressing offender’s addiction issues and reducing reoffending can have for family members, neighbours and victims.
This case-study was written by Suzanne Smith in 2020