THE COURTS

The Monthly (Australia) - - MAY 2018 - by He­len Gar­ner

I couldn’t work out who they were, but on days when none of them passed, I missed them: quiet mid­dle-aged women who moved with a light tread along the cor­ri­dor of the Supreme Court of Vic­to­ria, where I sat wait­ing for the long, sad trial I was fol­low­ing to re­sume. Some­times one of them would pause near my bench. They never launched into tax­ing con­ver­sa­tion, but merely of­fered me a mo­ment of their com­pany. I thought of them as the com­forters. Once another of them brought me a spare lam­ing­ton on a plate. The heavy tim­ber door through which she dis­ap­peared was la­belled “Court Net­work”. I won­dered if I would ever have the nerve to knock on that door. A young African man, very black and very slen­der, is sit­ting alone in a sunny foyer on the ninth floor of Mel­bourne’s County Court. She’s spot­ted him, the court net­worker who’s let­ting me shadow her for a morn­ing, but right now she’s in a hud­dle with two lawyers and an an­gry woman who in her stag­ger­ing, mytho­log­i­cal beauty re­sem­bles a god­dess in Homer – Athena dis­guised as a hu­man. Her son, a drug dealer and ice user, is about to be dealt with in­side the court for tak­ing his girl­friend against her will, skull-drag­ging her, bash­ing her and frac­tur­ing her nose in a small-town Coles Ex­press. He is plead­ing guilty to a list of charges that fills half an A4 page in a tiny type. His so­lic­i­tor, a pale young hip­ster, lays out for the mother the four prin­ci­ples of sen­tenc­ing. The god­dess turns away – oh, her no­ble pro­file, her half-closed eyes, her exquisitely curled lips. She could not give a shit that gen­eral de­ter­rence is one of the pil­lars of the sys­tem. The bar­ris­ter tact­fully sug­gests that her son’s vi­o­lent deeds were “out of char­ac­ter”. “No,” she says, rais­ing her chin. “He’s a very fiery per­son.” The net­worker is for­bid­den to of­fer le­gal ad­vice, but she is try­ing to make the god­dess see that it won’t help her son if she blows her top in court: the net­worker of­fers to sit with her in the foyer when the CCTV footage of his ram­page is screened. While she is hos­ing this down I glance over at the African man. He gives me a non­cha­lant grin. Soon the net­worker ap­proaches him. Is he a wit­ness? Does he need any help? “No,” he says with a cheer­ful shrug. “I’m an in­ter­preter.” They both laugh and she steps back. Many an as­sump­tion is over­turned here, many a knock­back de­liv­ered. Net­work­ers touch down, of­fer a con­nec­tion, and if it’s de­clined they with­draw – though of­ten, later in the day when the strain has be­gun to tell, a court user may be grate­ful to see a fa­mil­iar face. Eighty per cent of court net­work vol­un­teers are women, but more men are join­ing, and more are needed, es­pe­cially in the grow­ing area of fam­ily vi­o­lence. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted, but there’s a del­i­cacy to their skill. They call these ap­proaches “outreach”. It awes me to watch them scan a foyer full of con­fused and fright­ened strangers, and dive in cold. A white man is stand­ing with his back against a glass balustrade in the lobby of the courts where fam­ily vi­o­lence mat­ters are heard. His arms are folded across his chest and his feet planted wide – the pos­ture that says Do not fuck with me. My in­stinct is to pass at speed, but my net­worker makes a bee­line for him. She runs through her pat­ter. He tilts his head as if lis­ten­ing, but his eyes are fixed on the floor, and his face with its weath­er­beaten skin and bristly lit­tle mous­tache is as hard as a fist. I’m em­bar­rassed by our bour­geois nice­ness, but the net­worker qui­etly waits. He drags his eyes up and hits her with a cold stare. She doesn’t flinch. He mut­ters be­tween clenched teeth that he doesn’t need any­thing – his ex is in that court over there and he’s wait­ing to be called in. I’m about to take a step back when the net­worker leans for­ward a frac­tion of an inch, keep­ing her eyes on his, and sud­denly he starts to blurt out lumps of speech. He’s a Hells An­gel. Hells An­gels are not a gang. He’s been “re­viled and dis­crim­i­nated” all his life. He had three houses and two bikes and he’s had to sell the lot be­cause his ex … all his stuff was on the foot­path … he lost his whole life that day … and his son … his lit­tle boy … “How old’s your boy?” “Eight.” He twists away to hide his writhing mouth, then turns to us a face shock­ingly trans­formed: his eye sock­ets and lids and up­per cheeks have melted as if in an oven. The na­ture of the crime is ir­rel­e­vant to court net­work­ers, and their ser­vice is non­par­ti­san: they will ap­proach an of­fender or a vic­tim with equal open­ness. Their aim is to help court users nav­i­gate what could be the worst day of their lives. They are trained to lis­ten. At a sen­tenc­ing they are par­tic­u­larly alert to the be­wil­der­ment of an of­fender’s fam­ily, peo­ple so traumatised they are not even able to hear. They know how to ex­plain pro­ce­dure, to al­lay panic with fac­tual in­for­ma­tion, to re­fer lost, stunned peo­ple to so­cial ser­vices they’ve never heard of. In con­ver­sa­tion, acronyms roll off their tongues – DV for do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, VT for vi­car­i­ous trauma – but though they are care­fully screened and trained, they are vol­un­teers, not case­work­ers, thus most of them limit their work to one day a week, to avoid be­ing drawn into con­tin­u­ing en­tan­gle­ments that they are not pro­fes­sion­ally qual­i­fied to han­dle. They are a front­line ser­vice and this is their strength.

My net­worker, search­ing for a shaky old cou­ple whose son’s case has not yet come up, puts her head into a court. Here, a 20-year-old man has pleaded guilty to the se­ri­ous charge of cul­pa­ble driv­ing. Try­ing to get his mate away from a pub brawl that had turned vi­cious, he threw a wild U-turn in the car park and ac­ci­den­tally ran down another friend, who sus­tained a brain in­jury. The de­fen­dant’s coun­sel is ar­gu­ing for a com­mu­nity cor­rec­tions or­der. He presents his client as “a per­son who’s well loved”. The room is packed with his earnest co­hort, 29 very young men who, with their strag­gly hair and boots, look like stu­dents or new tradies. His early child­hood was marred by fam­ily men­tal ill­ness and fright­en­ing vi­o­lence; he and his younger sib­ling of­ten had to roam the streets all night. But he has worked, he has stud­ied and got his ticket. He has done ev­ery­thing in his power to atone for his ter­ri­ble mis­take: stopped drink­ing, un­der­taken ev­ery avail­able driv­ing course. He has faced up to his vic­tim: “The two men em­braced.” The vic­tim has even come to court: a lanky bloke with a man bun raises his hand, and when he turns his head I see that one eye has the very slightly wild cast to it, the brief de­lay, that I have seen in a friend’s son who was felled by a gang of thugs one night in the city. The net­worker can’t stay for the de­ci­sion. She is due in the foyer. As we slide to­wards the door, the rows of young men sit mo­tion­less, hold­ing their breath, in­tent upon the brood­ing mag­is­trate.

We en­ter un­chal­lenged and take seats right be­hind the car­di­nal. He is hunched like an old buf­falo.

My net­worker is tall. She must have abs and quads of steel, for when she ap­proaches a seated court user she jack­knifes for­ward and flexes her knees to get down to their level. She can main­tain this half-crouch with­out a quiver for min­utes at a time. She loves courts, she tells me, be­cause “they’re hec­tic”. A broad-cheeked, smil­ing lit­tle woman in her 40s, with her thin­ning hair in a pony­tail and a loop of plas­tic tube vis­i­ble un­der the hem of her loose flow­ery shirt, asks the net­worker to help her fill out a form. It’s an ap­pli­ca­tion to re­voke an ap­pre­hended vi­o­lence or­der that the po­lice took out a few months ago against her “friend”, after a “do­mes­tic in­ci­dent”. The net­worker shows her how to deal with the doc­u­ment’s boxes and lists, and the woman signs it. Then she tells us, with a sweet glow, about the won­der­ful treat­ment she’s had at the new can­cer hospi­tal, the kind­ness of the nurses, the beau­ti­ful cafe on the roof – they’ve got palm trees and ev­ery­thing, any­one can go in! You don’t even have to be a pa­tient! She rat­tles off her story: “He come round and smashed the win­dows of me car, front and back. It was only his jeal­ousy. We’re still in love. With m’ can­cer he was there by m’ side, to help me. When I’m sick he wants to be near me. But be­cause of the AVO he can’t come to my house. He’s cut the drinkin’. He paid for me win­dows. I’m from WA. I haven’t got fam­ily here. His fam­ily ac­cept me – his mum’s a lovely old duck. ’Cause he’s white, and you can see what am.” On our way out at lunchtime we pass a court with a sign that for­bids en­try with­out ID. The net­worker slows near a line of three ma­ture-aged men in iden­ti­cal black suits, dis­posed on fold­able chairs. One look at their dog collars and closed ex­pres­sions tells us who is within: a car­di­nal up on his­tor­i­cal sex abuse charges, half a world away from the gilded palaces of the Vat­i­can. The air of the foyer is charged with a shim­mer of power. This is the first time I have seen a net­worker hes­i­tate. She flicks a look at me. She makes no ap­proach to the priests, with their warn­ing mien, but swerves to­wards the door. We en­ter un­chal­lenged and take seats right be­hind the car­di­nal. He is hunched like an old buf­falo. I con­quer a Pi­lates urge to put my knee to his tho­racic spine and pull his shoul­ders back, to whis­per, “Open out that chest.” But how would a net­worker ad­dress a prince of the church? Your Em­i­nence? Your Grace? Fa­ther? Sir? Plain old Mis­ter? How about Fel­low-sin­ner? Or Fel­low-suf­ferer? Or per­haps the greet­ing that men use out there in the anx­ious foyer: Hey, bro? Now he’s down in the muck with the rest of us, would he an­swer to that?

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