the courts

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by He­len Gar­ner

Busi­ness is al­ready un­der­way when I slide in at 10am. There’s a sub­dued hum. Peo­ple wait alone, or shuf­fle about ner­vously in small fam­ily groups. Up on the bench the curly-headed mag­is­trate is lean­ing for­ward on his el­bows to stare at the of­fender be­fore him with an ex­pres­sion that would cause me to cringe but bounces off this booze artist like a thrown peanut in a bar. “And how many stan­dard drinks did you have, that day?” barks the po­lice pros­e­cu­tor, a shiny-skulled fel­low with a heavy black mono­brow. The young woman in the box heaves her shape­less body into a more ap­a­thetic pos­ture. She lets her in­dif­fer­ent gaze rove over the room. “Ten. Twelve.” “And how long does it take to re­move the al­co­hol from your blood­stream?” She puts one hand on her hip and loudly sighs. “I dunno. You tell me the an­swer. Dr Google it.” She is giv­ing lip? What lit­tle I know about courts I have im­bibed in the County and the Supreme, where solemn for­mal­ity reigns and mat­ters pro­ceed at a stately pace. But this is the Gee­long Mag­is­trates’ Court, the day’s lo­co­mo­tive is rack­et­ing down the track, and my ideas of deco­rum are al­ready se­verely shaken. “Have you got the pri­ors there, Se­nior?” The mag­is­trate glares down at the next drunk who imag­ines he can get his li­cence back: white hair freshly buzz-cut, glis­ten­ing golden chain, but his once pretty-boy face has the dark flush of the life­time soak. He’s in court to­day for hav­ing “self­ishly, ar­ro­gantly driven a car – Why?” asks the mag­is­trate. “No real rea­son.” “What’ve you learnt?” “The tragedy of drink driv­ing.” The mag­is­trate clicks his tongue. “Don’t give me an an­swer that makes it sound like you’ve pre­pared it.” He wields as a tal­is­man a hor­ri­ble re­cent smash: four Western District grand­moth­ers slaugh­tered when another driver T-boned them on their in­no­cent way home from an af­ter­noon of danc­ing. That driver’s cul­pa­bil­ity has not yet been de­ter­mined but there’s an an­gry grief in the way he in­vokes the old women’s fate again and again. “Those four linedancers were all equally valu­able. What are you say­ing to the com­mu­nity of Vic­to­ria right now? To get your li­cence back you’ve got to be zero for three years – you’re not get­ting it. Why should you go back on the road? When are you go­ing to stop be­ing stupid?” Mag­is­trate and pros­e­cu­tor ham­mer away at the sorry pro­ces­sion. Bearded hip­sters or guys with ed­u­cated ac­cents try to charm their way out of trou­ble and are flamed with­out mercy. Oth­ers are ding­bats who have done the com­pul­sory driv­ing course but still don’t know what a stan­dard drink is. “Wrong. Bang. Don’t guess. You’re grasp­ing at straws.” “You might be a good fella. Hard-work­ing. Fam­ily man. Or are you just say­ing that?” “We know your chil­dren are the most im­por­tant thing to you. Why are you drink­ing? Are you sure you’re not hid­ing some form of al­co­holism?” A cheer­ful plumber in grey denim and a sil­ver ear­ring risks a note of good-hu­moured pathos: “I’m a dad – I’m on a low in­come at the mo­ment.” The mag­is­trate falls on him like a wall: “We’re not go­ing to lower the bar to use­less­ness and hope­less­ness!” As the de­flated tradie trudges out, the po­lice pros­e­cu­tor fires a gra­tu­itous part­ing shot over his shoul­der: “And you’d fail the at­ti­tude test, mate.” The sheer ve­loc­ity of the process is as­ton­ish­ing. The mag­is­trate barely draws breath be­tween one mat­ter and the next. He’s got to keep mov­ing, mov­ing. Some don­key lit a fire on a 45-de­gree day. A traf­fic con­troller in hi-vis wants ac­tion against a guy who’s threat­en­ing to break up his prop­erty: “He won’t rest, mate. He’s got no fear. If he at­tacks me, you guys are gonna suf­fer.” A lady with an el­e­gant grey bob found a wal­let and didn’t hand it in. “Op­por­tunis­tic theft,” mur­murs the mag­is­trate, “is not ac­cept­able in civilised so­ci­ety.” A dis­abil­ity pen­sioner de­scribes in a gasp­ing stam­mer how he is be­ing picked on and pestered by junkies want­ing money. The mag­is­trate de­liv­ers the gen­tlest of re­proaches: “You’ve given them money in the past, but they keep com­ing back for more?” Of­ten he will send some­one pack­ing with a brusque state­ment of good will: “All the best. Good luck. I hope I won’t see you again.” Now a shame-faced busi­ness­man in a good blue suit and a yachtie’s tan is about to have his dirty linen washed in public. Oh, man, has he blown it. He’s taken thirty grand out of his com­pany’s ac­count to send to a girl he met on the in­ter­net while his mar­riage was col­laps­ing. He pan­icked, and two days later tried to put the money back, but it was too late, they were on to him, and now his whole life’s down the toi­let. A very young woman on a charge of care­less driv­ing fronts the bench with her arms full of quiv­er­ing doc­u­ments. Her fa­ther, staunch in the row be­hind her, tries to speak up for her and is ticked off: “You can’t talk. Un­less you’re a lawyer.” She swal­lows her tears and bravely keeps go­ing in her soft nasal voice, mak­ing tiny fluid hand ges­tures: and yes, she is ar­tic­u­late. Any id­iot can see she has a case. The mag­is­trate soft­ens his tone, and sends her out to get rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Two peo­ple who do have lawyers on this day have been in­volved in a mi­nor prang in a su­per­mar­ket car park. The woman in­sists she was sta­tion­ary and the man backed into her; the man claims that they backed into

The mag­is­trate turns his at­ten­tion to the chaotic cou­ple in the back row. Now I’m wide awake.

each other. “I said to him, ‘No!’” she cries in a voice bright with out­rage. “I said to him, ‘My car was sta­tion­ary and I need your de­tails!’” Asked if she re­ally re­mem­bers where her car was parked, she shouts, “I’ve been park­ing in that car park two or three times a week for 15 years. I’m in re­tail. I’ve got four chil­dren. I live in that car park.” Her hus­band, seated be­hind coun­sel, keeps mak­ing hammy ges­tures at the mag­is­trate, turn­ing his mouth down at the cor­ners, spread­ing his up­turned palms. When she de­scribes how she put her car in gear, he help­fully mimes gear-chang­ing with his left hand. “This,” says the mag­is­trate drily, “is a per­fect storm when it comes to a car park in­ci­dent.” As the triv­ial dis­pute is de­vel­op­ing, at a pace so lux­u­ri­ously glacial that the mag­is­trate be­gins to squirm on his bench, a di­shev­elled cou­ple crashes through the door and set­tles nois­ily into the back row of the court. The man has a dra­mat­i­cally wild, dark look, like the strong­man Zam­panò in Fellini’s movie La Strada. The young woman is a plump fig­ure in pur­ple with her hair screwed into a high bunch. Her eyes keep rolling up, her head tip­ping side­ways. Mean­while, the car park saga drags on. At the bar ta­ble one of the bar­ris­ters passes his learned friend a sheet of pa­per, mur­mur­ing lan­guidly, “Just as an aidemé­moire.” The learned friend’s heavy gold bracelet and rings brush against the mi­cro­phone and set off screech­ing feed­back. I’ve al­ways boasted that I never get bored in court, but the room has grown stuffy. I’m thirsty. I lower my head on to my arms. I only re­alise I’ve been asleep when I am wo­ken with a jolt by the mag­is­trate spit­ting the dummy. “I’m not in your head!” he roars at a wit­ness. “I don’t want to know what you think! You’re not help­ing! This has gone on half an hour longer than it should have!” In some le­gal ma­noeu­vre I’m too stu­pe­fied to fol­low, the car park calamity is hus­tled off into the fu­ture, and the mag­is­trate turns his at­ten­tion to the chaotic cou­ple in the back row. Now I’m wide awake. While his swollen-faced girl­friend takes the stand, Zam­panò in his seat chews vig­or­ously with his mouth open and amuses him­self by toss­ing and catch­ing a red rub­ber ball. “So it says here,” the mag­is­trate reads from the woman’s state­ment, “the front fence of your house was kicked in by your neigh­bour? A dead rat was put in your let­ter­box? And her son-in-law al­ways fol­lows you? Tells you to suck his dick?” “That’s right, Judge.” “And you’re ob­ject­ing on be­half of cer­tain chil­dren who are … in your care?” The straps of her blouse are fall­ing off her bare, red­dened shoul­ders. She slumps in her seat at an ex­treme an­gle, and keeps plung­ing one hand into her vo­lu­mi­nous bo­som. “Yes, Judge,” she says. “They’ve never be­fore been ex­posed to this kind of bad be­hav­iour.” Dead­pan, the mag­is­trate grants them the or­der they want, and they are in­vited to be on their way. “No wor­ries, Judge,” says the woman. Zam­panò slouches out first, shrug­ging and smiling in­so­lently. At the door they pause, turn back, and per­form in uni­son the most grace­ful, witty bow. Late in the af­ter­noon, court rises and the room emp­ties. The mag­is­trate turns to me and shouts in a rough, friendly tone, “Have you got any ques­tions? Any­thing you want to ask me? I can’t be­lieve you’d give up a whole day of your life to spend it here.” I blurt out the first thing that pops into my head: “But this is my life. I’m a writer.” Hard to say, at that mo­ment, which of us is the more taken aback. All the way home to Mel­bourne, as the train rolls across the mighty vol­canic plain, I think of the things I wish I’d been quick enough to say to him: about the blasts of joy I feel at the way peo­ple will ex­press them­selves un­der pres­sure, at how gamely they will get to their feet un­de­fended and ar­gue that their lives have mean­ing and value. I wish I’d asked him how much of what he does is play-act­ing, or whether, as I sus­pect (and for which I ad­mire him), when he shouts at peo­ple he is ac­tu­ally try­ing to snap them out of their nar­cis­sis­tic trance. And I re­mem­ber read­ing some­thing the Amer­i­can writer Leslie Jami­son said about her years at AA meet­ings: how the sto­ries she heard there woke her up to “the world, in all its won­der and end­less­ness … It’s not just that ev­ery­one has a story. It’s that ev­ery­one has a thou­sand sto­ries. Ev­ery­one is in­fi­nite.” How could any­one think my day was wasted?

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