This article was written by Michelle Makela - Legal Practice Director

Michelle has over 15 years experience in the legal industry, working across commercial litigation, criminal law, family law and estate planning.  Michelle has been involved in all practice areas of the firm and in her personal practice has had experience in litigation at all levels (state and federal industrial tribunals, the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, the Federal Court, Federal...

Magistrates' Early Referral Into Treatment (MERIT) Program


The MERIT program is a diversion program that provides offenders who have a drug or alcohol dependency an opportunity to work towards rehabilitation as part of their bail process. If accepted into the program a drug treatment program is developed that matches the person’s needs and runs for approximately 3 months.

The MERIT Program is a voluntary program based in the Local Courts that you can apply for during the bail process. The primary goal of the program is to break the substance abuse-crime cycle by involving defendants in treatment and rehabilitation programs. It consists of two types: Drug MERIT and Alcohol MERIT. Drug MERIT is aimed at adult defendants who have illicit drug use problems. Alcohol MERIT is aimed at adult defendants who have alcohol abuse problems.

Why do the MERIT program?

Doing the MERIT program presents significant benefits including:

  • Potentially leading to a lesser sentence
  • Enabling you to improve your long-term quality of life
  • Helping you break the cycle of drug-related crime.

Research into the program found that 97% of magistrates expressed the belief that participation in MERIT reduced the likelihood of further offending. When the magistrates were asked about the weight given at sentencing for satisfactory completion of the MERIT treatment program, most magistrates described satisfactory participation in MERIT as: “significant” (35.1%), “a great deal/ weight” (21.6%) or “considerable” (13.5%).

Participating in the MERIT program is not an easy option. You must be aware that it imposes onerous requirements on them. However, if you have a strong desire to address your drug or alcohol dependency, it is worth considering the MERIT program if you are eligible.

Am I eligible to participate in a MERIT program?

To be eligible, you must be:

  • Suitable for release on bail
  • An adult with a demonstrable illicit drug or alcohol problem
  • Willing to consent to a treatment program
  • Not involved in current or pending offences related to physical violence or sexual assault, or matters that will be heard in the District Court
  • Deemed suitable for treatment and have a treatable problem
  • Approved to participate in the program by the Magistrate
  • (For drug MERIT) Appearing at the following Local Court: Albion Park, Ballina, Bankstown, Bathurst, Blacktown, Blayney, Broken Hill, Burwood, Byron Bay, Camden, Campbelltown, Casino, Cessnock, Coffs Harbour, Cooma, Downing Centre, Dubbo, Fairfield, Forbes, Gosford, Grafton, Hornsby, Junee, Katoomba, Kempsey, Kiama, Kogarah, Kyogle, Lismore, Liverpool, Maclean, Maitland, Manly, Milton, Mt Druitt, Mullimbimby, Murwillumbah, , Muswellbrook, Newcastle, Newtown, North Sydney, Nowra, Oberon, Orange, Parkes, Parramatta, Penrith, Port Kembla, Port Macquarie, Queanbeyan, Raymond Terrace, Ryde, Singleton, Sutherland, Tamworth, Toronto, Tweed Heads, Wagga Wagga, Wauchope, Waverley, Wellington, Wilcannia, Wollongong, Woy Woy or Wyong Local Courts
  • (For Alcohol MERIT) Be appearing at: Bathurst, Broken Hill, Coffs Harbour, Dubbo, Manly, Orange, Wellington, Wilcannia, or Wollongong Local Courts.

What is involved in the MERIT Program?

If your application is successful you will attend an interview with the MERIT Team to assess the type of treatment suitable for them. The treatment may involve detoxification, Methadone and other pharmacotherapies, residential rehabilitation, individual and group counselling, case management or other forms of welfare support and assistance. Often the treatment is made as part of the bail condition.

There are 5 steps involved in the Program

  1. Referral
    You may be referred to the MERIT program before a formal plea is entered. A referral can be made by magistrates, police, or you or your lawyer.
  2. Assessment
    Court proceedings will be adjourned while the MERIT team assesses whether you are suited to and would benefit from the program. The assessment is conducted by health teams assigned to participating NSW Local Courts. The assessment focuses on a broad range of areas such as substance use history, physical health, mental health, housing, education, and training and employment issues.
  3. Acceptance
    If you are not assessed as suitable for participation in MERIT, you will return to court and have your matter dealt with in the usual way. If you are assessed as suitable, you will return to the referral court and the Magistrate will impose a bail condition that you abide by the reasonable directions of the MERIT team. If you breach this condition or commit a further offence during the MERIT program the MERIT team may notify the court and you could be excluded from participating in the program.
  4. Acceptance
    Participation in a treatment program agreed to by you and your MERIT Caseworker usually lasts 3 months. During this time support and guidance is provided to you by a MERIT Caseworker. While on the program you must appear before the Magistrate usually at 6-week intervals. The MERIT team provides the court with progress updates.
  5. Completion
    Upon the conclusion of the program, you will return to court and enter a plea if you have not already done so. Magistrates are provided with a comprehensive report regarding participation in treatment. Where appropriate the report makes recommendations to assist you in maintaining and continuing their rehabilitation. If you are convicted the Magistrate will take into account your completion of the MERIT program in sentencing you.

Failure to respond to a drug treatment program will not be dealt with by punitive measures. If you are convicted any penalty will relate to that offence only and not to any failure to respond to treatment.

If you or any other relative are eligible for the MERIT program please call us for further assistance and representation.

  • Reside as directed (maybe at an accommodation or residential rehabilitation service)
  • Participate in individual, group, and/or family counselling
  • Participate in educational or vocational assessments and programs
  • Participate in health-related assessments or intervention
  • Participate in recreational/leisure programs
  • Submit to random urinalysis

If you require legal advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.

WHERE TO NEXT?

If you suspect that you may be under investigation, or if you have been charged with an offence, it is vital to get competent legal advice as early as possible. Our lawyers are highly specialised in criminal law and will be able to guide you through the process while dealing with the various authorities related to your matter.

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