It’s an average morning at the ACT Magistrates Court and the unfortunate, unlucky, defiant or just plain stupid await their fate.
“All rise.” The few dozen people in the public gallery take to their feet, most with a weary hunch, some with a hint of deference and a handful with a military bearing.
A snowy-haired magistrate walks to his seat and surveys the cross-section of humanity before him. Court One is now in session. He reads out the name on the front of the folder handed to him by a prim assistant and the bearer of the name shuffles forward, legal counsel in wide lapels by his side.
Over the next few minutes the details trickle out. A few months back the man was driving home from work – he’s a hard-working small businessman, his counsel eagerly volunteers – when he reached over to some groceries on the passenger seat. His car swerved wildly and collected a car parked on the side of the road with enough force that it hit a third car parked in front. In a fit of panic, the man continued home without stopping, even as he realised the force of the impact had damaged his own steering.
Soon after, police were called by residents who had heard the commotion, one of whom got a good look at the car. Within a few hours police had caught up with the offender, who expressed remorse for his actions and blamed them on work-related stress.
Now called before the magistrate, the middle-aged battler is turning red as his misdeeds are exposed to a group of strangers. Eager to soften the blow, his counsel presents a statement from the man’s insurer that the damages – totalling nearly $30,000 – have been settled and also a character reference from the man’s business coach.
“What’s his driving record like?” the magistrate asks as he peruses the documents before him. “Very good, your honour,” comes the response. “His last offence was when I was four and my friend here was probably not born.” He elicits a wry smile from the tenacious young woman down-table.
The magistrate weighs up the facts of the case, the contrition shown and the fact that suspending the man’s licence would seemingly imperil his already-struggling enterprise. He slaps the man with a fine and some demerit points. Unspoken is the fact the shame of being hauled before the court may be more of a deterrent than anything else.
Over the next few hours the occupants of the public gallery of the ACT Magistrates Court have their name called out and proceed to the inner sanctum. To get to this stage most have already indicated their willingness to plead guilty, so the matters can be dispensed briskly.
There’s the fella with the fading tatts who misjudged the alcohol in his system when he sought to take his car home after a big night out. There’s the stocky New Zealander who got into a carpark brawl outside a nightclub defending his mate (“My mum was furious at me,” he proffered, perhaps sparing him a conviction). And there’s the middle aged man who had had his license suspended but was caught behind the wheel at a strip club (“I guess I was thinking with my dick,” he said to a murmur of agreement from the bench).
Almost universally the defendants have made the best effort their wardrobes will allow. A few not-quite-fitting suits, a button-up shirt, usually finished with a pair of black sneakers. In some ways, the defendants are a disparate bunch, some Anglo and some not, some older and some younger. But two features unite them: they are almost all male, and all hail from the fringes of the city, geographically and economically. While Canberra may have Australia’s highest average household income, there are still sprawling suburbs with people doing it tough.
Next up is a sprightly older man representing himself. His offence is not voting in last year’s federal election, and not paying the fine for his misdeed. Enjoying his time with an audience, the pensioner declines to say how he pleads, instead embarking on a tirade against the pitiful choices offered to him on the ballot paper. The magistrate hears him for a minute or two before breaking the news that his excuse is not valid. Nonetheless, the magistrate takes a liking to the fighting spirit of the man of similar vintage to himself, and declines to impose a fine. “You’re free to go – just make sure you vote next time.”
The magistrate shares a comfortable familiarity with the others in the room who keep the wheels turning. His young assistant strides purposefully through the courtroom, her blonde bun fixed in position, as she conveys documents between different parties and takes the particulars of new arrivals in the gallery. The whip-smart Crown legal counsel, a woman of Asian heritage with a broad Australian accent, guides the magistrate through the details of each case with assuredness. And the counsel for those defendants who are represented gets a nod of approval as they take their place at the table. Just as the defendants share some things in common, so too does this crowd.
As the clock approaches noon the gallery is thinning out. Sitting in the corner trying to look inconspicuous is a lanky young man in a sweater bearing a tribal African motif. His name is called and he steps forward. A few months before he had been out drinking with some friends and grabbed the car-keys of one. He jumped in the driver’s seat and lasted all of 300 metres before he connected with a telegraph pole. He was okay, but the car was not, nor was his friendship with the car’s owner. Facing an $8000 repair bill on the income of a brickie’s labourer, the defendant is suitably chastened. The magistrate sizes up the situation and elicits a confession of stupidity from the man, a refugee from Kenya. He leaves appearing significantly shorter than when he entered.
The gallery now empty, the magistrate allows himself a satisfied grin. Justice dispensed, all in time for lunch.