My day in court

I was in court on Monday. I was listed to appear at 9.30. The Magistrates Court was all a bustle, police and lawyers, and of course those appearing – a motley, interesting lot, though not as feral as was evident at Ringwood. I sat in the back of the court in my respectful blue suit, a friend having joined me for moral support and counsel.

In the way of these things I had to sit there for nearly 2 hours before my case was called. I sat listening to tawdry tales of drink-driving and drugs, the accused cross-examined by the magistrate keen to get to the nub of the circumstances, and to assess if any reform had been achieved. In ways it was amusing as people stood and told unlikely – though court approved – tales of their changed habits. People done for drink driving claiming now to have 2-3 drinks only every 6 weeks or so now, and similar. The one person who seemed remotely (and foolishly) honest was slapped down hard by the magistrate and had his application denied. Then it was my turn.

The problem with much of the law is that it is so black and white. I guess it has to be, but when I was asked to plead either guilty or not guilty I felt betwixt and between. Well yes, I was probably guilty of some charges, and not of others. Even so, what I wanted to represent was a different case to what I was facing. It was less about mitigating circumstances (though they apply), and more about the maladministration of my claims on these charges. For the court though, this was not at issue.

I pleaded not guilty, to the magistrates surprise and dismay. He tried to convince me otherwise, explaining in his magisterial way that for the court these were black and white charges. I was not inclined to change my mind. The last time I went to court I felt a little cowed by the environment and the very fact that I was appearing there as one of the accused. My appearance there was brief, but I toed the line.

This time I was in a different mood. I was unwell – I ended up home sick on Tuesday with a chest cold – but there was no question this time that I would uphold my version of events. I had sat there for over an hour on top of that, long enough to feel a bit jaded by the process.

I imagine it must be very hard to be a judge, and retain some perspective. There you sit in judgement on the lives of your fellow citizens, elevated above and beyond them according to the dictates of the law. It’s a necessary position, but easy, I imagine, to be carried away with it. You have the power to alter the fate of people’s lives: what greater power is there than that? Such power must be used judiciously.

My friend beside me that day – a churchgoer – muttered at some stage ‘let those without sin cast the first stone’. It’s a fair point. Who of us are so pure to have never sinned? The law is not at question in a courtroom, nor are those who perform in it’s service, but regardless I think the proper performance of it should be tempered with the knowledge that we are all but men. No-one, not even a judge, is above the law.

I’d been disappointed in how the magistrate conducted himself, though not surprised. To be fair, if it’s hard not to feel flush with power sometimes, it must more difficult to raise above the daily muck that has to be dealt with and processed. It must be near impossible not to feel some cynicism, if only occasionally. It’s a tough job.

I realise the concept of innocent until proven guilty is probably not much more than a nice sounding and idealistic aphorism, but you’d like to believe that’s a starting point. I’d seen no evidence of that in my brief observation, either in Melbourne, or in Ringwood. There was an undertone of disdain particularly on Monday, even when the application was ultimately successful. It wasn’t overt, but more apparent in tone of voice, and occasionally in the tenor of the questions being asked. For the applicants quailing there in the box it’s difficult enough as is, without being further intimidated.

I was determined not to be intimidated. As the magistrate tried to coerce me into re-considering my plea I stood firm, unmoved even. When I was asked to re-affirm my plea I answered simply and without emotion. I felt sure the magistrate felt exasperated with what he thought an uncooperative defendant. He turned to the prosecuting police officer, a well turned out and muscular officer in a starched uniform, to confirm how serious this was. In typical police manner the officer agreed in his sober and unimaginative way.

At that point my attitude pretty much was, good for you.

It was something I had to guard against. My instinct is to defend myself vigorously. Often that takes the form of a sharp tongue. This was not the time or place for that, though I felt it bubbling up in me. Be humble, I reminded myself, show remorse. I had dressed myself that morning aware of the impression I wanted to make, more conservative than I might normally, though well. I stood there in court and said no more than I needed to, batting away provocation. With a sigh the magistrate directed me downstairs to a summary hearing.

On the way there I stopped by legal aid. I’d seen them a few weeks earlier and they told me they couldn’t help. They said the same thing again when finally I saw them. I persisted, saying I wanted a consult at least. In the meantime I wandered across to the police prosecutors to discuss. I explained the technicalities of my case, which seemed to flummox the Senior Constable. He knew well the technicalities of road law, but administrative law was enough to send him into a tizz. He was sympathetic, and suggested I seek legal counsel and an adjournment.

Back to legal aid I went, and this time met with a sympathetic ear.  The intricacies of my case provoked a fascinated response. My claim, basically, was that the infringements court had acted improperly, and in contravention of the policies that govern them. I had long thought this, but my friend sitting beside me – a self-styled bush lawyer – had spent our time waiting scrolling through the various acts and was able to quote them at length. Hmm, curious, seemed to be the reaction of legal aid. My lawyer went off to discuss it with the head of her department and returned with instructions to follow-up with. If it was as I claimed then they were happy to represent me – but I needed to get it verified, and a copy of my file.

By now the courthouse had closed down for lunch. Off we went to do the same. I knew the area well having once worked around the corner in the old AWB office. I led my friend down Little Lonsdale, and ultimately to a little Vietnamese restaurant, where we were served by two young waitresses, a bright Vietnamese with a slash of silver colouring through her hair, and an exotic looking Aussie girl. They were friendly and welcoming, willing to engage. I was crook and had just come from the dock, but found myself equally in the mood to engage.

It was a good feeling. Just being there, in the city, wearing a spiffy suit, amid the hustle and bustle, was enough to re-energise me. This is what I knew. This was the environment I had for so many years moved through seamlessly. I realised that I had felt like a master of that environment, like the apex predator. Those days were long gone, and probably illusory in any case, but the remembrance of it and familiarity of feeling roused me into activity. I ordered like a million times before, sitting in a Melbourne bar or café with a friend. We had a beer each, chatted to the waitresses and made them laugh. I looked about, wondering, is this really out of reach? It felt not.

We went back to court. I had to formally re-appear to request an adjournment. Once more the magistrate tried to discourage me, attempting to lecture me on the sense of it. I ignored him – and that was that. I appear next on May 11.

It’s a long and hard road. I wish it was over and resolved, but there’s never really any consideration of just getting it done. I’ve come this far, I’m not going to fold now. And I’m very stubborn when it comes to issues of justice. I refuse to be done over. It’s easy how it can happen, being railroaded along the path of least resistance. I’m sure it happens all the time, but it won’t for me.

I finally got back at about 3.30. It had been a long day.

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