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syringe and drugsThe MERIT program, officially known as Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment, is a voluntary program designed for adults in the Local Court system who are dealing with alcohol and substance abuse issues. It allows individuals to seek assistance before entering a plea. By participating in MERIT, individuals gain access to a diverse range of alcohol and drug treatment services for a period of 12 weeks while their court proceedings are temporarily adjourned. This program has been in operation since 2000 and is presently accessible in 62 out of the 137 Local Courts situated in NSW.

The participant will collaborate with the MERIT team to receive optimal treatment and support, which may encompass the following:


  • Individual and group counselling
  • Case management
  • Welfare support and assistance
  • In-patient or home-based detoxification
  • Opioid substitution therapy
  • Residential rehabilitation

The MERIT team will tailor these services to meet the participant’s specific needs and circumstances, ensuring they receive the most suitable and effective treatment options available.

How to Enter the Merit Program?

Participation in the MERIT program is subject to approval and eligibility determined by the Magistrate. To be considered eligible for MERIT, individuals must meet the following criteria:

  • Being an adult.
  • Being either released on bail or not requiring bail.
  • Not having an offense that will be heard in the District Court or involve a sexual assault matter.

In addition to meeting these eligibility requirements, individuals must also be deemed suitable for the MERIT program. The suitability assessment, carried out by the MERIT team, takes into account the following factors:

  • Possessing a treatable alcohol and other drug problem.
  • Residing in or having a connection to an area (e.g., full-time work) where MERIT services are available.
  • Providing consent to participate in the program.

Referrals to the MERIT program can be made by a Magistrate, solicitor, or Police Officer, as well as by individuals themselves. To initiate the referral process, individuals have the option to contact the Alcohol and Drug Information Service at 1800 250 015, where they will be connected with their local MERIT team. For a comprehensive list of the courts where MERIT is available, please refer to the provided List of Local Courts.

Once enrolled in the program, the defendant becomes subject to the guidance of the MERIT team, which possesses expertise in the therapeutic aspects rather than the legal aspects. While the MERIT team assumes a primary role, magistrates also play a vital part in the process and are encouraged to provide comprehensive supervision.

The court acts as a case manager, overseeing the process through adjournments and regular MERIT update reports. This necessitates increased involvement and flexibility from magistrates.

The defendant is required to appear in court to report on the progress of their treatment plan, where the magistrate may offer encouragement or guidance if necessary. Unlike the traditional Drug Court model, magistrates do not directly involve themselves in treatment matters, acknowledging the expertise of healthcare professionals.

The frequency of court appearances for the defendant is determined by the magistrate, usually based on the MERIT team’s recommendation. During each court appearance, the MERIT team provides an update report, usually in written form, to the magistrate.

If the defendant fails to comply with the treatment plan, judicial supervision can underscore the consequences of non-compliance.

Whenever feasible, it is beneficial for the same magistrate to handle the defendant’s case throughout the bail period, as this can enhance the likelihood of successful treatment.

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How Long is the Merit NSW Program?

The program involves engaging in treatment for approximately 12 weeks, adhering to all other bail conditions, and attending court appearances to provide progress updates to the Magistrate. Typically, these updates occur at the 6-week and 12-week marks during treatment. It is important to note that participants have the option to withdraw from the program voluntarily at any time. If a participant decides not to complete the program, their court case proceeds according to the usual process. It is crucial to understand that there are no penalties imposed on participants for leaving the MERIT program.

Upon successful completion of the MERIT program, the participant’s original hearing or sentencing matter(s) will be heard by the Magistrate. The Magistrate will receive a comprehensive report from the MERIT team, containing details about the participant’s treatment progress and any recommended future treatment.

In the event that a participant does not complete the MERIT program, the court will not impose punitive measures. This implies that if a participant is convicted of the charged offense(s), the penalties imposed will solely pertain to those specific offenses and not be influenced by their participation or non-completion of the MERIT program.

Merit Program Phone Numbers

If you or your representative need to learn more about the MERIT Program, please give us a call at 1300 652 226.

Sentencing after Completion of Merit Program

Upon completion of the treatment program, the MERIT team prepares a final report for the magistrate. This report provides a comprehensive overview of the participant’s progress, including their engagement in treatment and its effectiveness. It may also include recommendations for future treatment. The report serves as valuable information for the court in determining appropriate ongoing treatment or guidance, typically through probation.


During this stage, the defendant will be asked to enter a plea if they haven’t done so already, and the case will proceed as per the usual process.

The significance of the final MERIT report in relation to the defendant’s case is solely at the discretion of the magistrate during sentencing. It can be reasonably assumed that successful completion of the MERIT treatment plan would likely be considered a favourable factor for the defendant, as it demonstrates both a willingness and capacity for rehabilitation.

If you have been charged with a drug offence in NSW and require drug offence lawyers in Sydney, contact Lyons Law Group now.


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