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Real Justice, by Barry Dickins

In a series of articles Barry Dickins interviews staff and reflects on Australia’s first Neighbourhood Justice Centre, in Collingwood, Victoria.

Although I had only been the author-in-residence at the Neighbourhood Justice Centre a week, it occurred to me that the atmosphere of the building is the exact opposite of the old Magistrate’s Court in Russell Street and other antiquated courts where I have either written descriptively of their goings-on and the extreme atmosphere of dread, or even terror. People can be so terrified in the dock.  They really don’t know how to plead or where to look.

I personally have a horror of imprisonment and can imagine nothing worse than languishing in some solitary cell while time ticks away my loud and longing heartbeat. I have often visited friends in jail and they have become in most cases clinically depressed, and ultimately anxious, with the side-effect of being fearful of nature.

It is awful to find yourself, as I myself have, in a claustrophobic prison cell with only enough light to see a tin bucket to defecate into. At an old suburban lock-up when I was not much more than twenty years of age, I squatted in a vile dark cell for a whole day, in company of a rapist, for the trumped up charge of criminal assault. Although it is forty years ago the recollections of my brief stay there are crystalline. I had been beaten up in the city by a gang of thugs and yet the police who saw me trying hard to defend myself charged me as the offender.

I was handcuffed for the first time in my life and frog-marched up the steps of D24, which was the Russell Street Police Headquarters in those times; I was duly finger-printed and charged with numerous offences, none that I’d committed, then driven in an erratic manner to the suburban police station, whereupon I was physically kicked into the cell.

A month later I took the stand handcuffed and a solicitor from Fitzroy Legal Service told the policeman who had just read out a whole cartload of fictitious charges, ‘I think you have perjured yourself enough for one day’.  The magistrate said, ‘You may step down now, Mr Dickins; you are free to leave this courtroom because you have nothing to answer for in any remote way’. So I owe the pro bono lawyer who defended my charges all those decades ago more than I can possibly say.

As I write this memoir, I see the Neighbourhood Justice Centre as illuminating and murk-less and that the openness and transparency of the place has breathed new life into law.

After commencing my observations at the Neighbourhood Justice Centre, I was invited to watch the court and listen and take my notes. I attended a session with Justice Fanning in charge of certain cases. In a blur the people, I must say, made hardly any impression on me and since most were toothless it became a dental impression.

I asked Magistrate David Fanning, ‘People have heard the phrase sausage machine: of all the thousands of plaintiffs who have come before your bench, do some stay in particular, do some faces stay?’ He replied, ‘Well yes, for differing reasons. Yes, some people stay and some people I will forget about, then I will see them again or something reminds me of them and it all floods back’.

The former Victorian attorney-general Rob Hulls envisioned the Neighbourhood Justice Centre so vividly that it came true.  It is like hope having meaning, or law having a reprieve, or the human voice having a dignity it was previously denied. The project team had an international trip and looked at the only two other justice centres in the world. One was at Red Hook in New York and the other was in North Liverpool in England, so they had two models; then this one became a different animal.

The Neighourhood Justice Centre was opened in January 2007. Kerry Walker is its Director. She has been with the Centre since before its opening. She says,

Rob Hulls was a great champion of the place and his vision for it being at the revolution of the spectrum of what was happening with the law was really strong. That this place could be different, that the court didn’t have to be the centre, that the community could be the centre of activity: that’s heresy. It sounds so simple, but it’s heresy.

 Damian James, manager of the Registry of the Neighbourhood Justice Centre says,

We work with the philosophy that we try and put people at ease … The Neigbourhood Justice Centre has a different feel compared to other magistrates courts; there is less tension here because there is often less time pressure and a smaller volume of people. Also there are aesthetic differences. For example, you walk in the front door and it doesn’t feel like you’re walking into a courthouse.

 The building is light and bright, and the concierge, the security guards, will greet and acknowledge you. You don’t have to walk through a weapons detection device.  You can get a free tea or coffee at the kiosk.  So it’s all those little things and politeness that make the difference.

 When I applied for my job, I thought I’ll visit the Centre to find out about the place. So my predecessor showed me around and her parting words to me were, ‘Just remember Damian, it’s a Centre not a court’.  About three months later the penny dropped about what she actually meant because in every other court that I’ve worked at, the court is central, everything’s peripheral to the court; here, it’s the Centre in the middle; the court’s on the periphery.

 The Centre has a range of support services: financial and other counselling, mediation, supervision of court orders and crisis counselling. As well, it has a number of community development initiatives to help people manage their own lives. However, from crook to honest can be a long and gruelling road, with some emphasis on the gruel.

Beth Swales is a community corrections officer who says she feels blessed and privileged to come to work.

 For me, I mean, Community Corrections, by its very nature, is a community approach to justice.  However, we are often working in isolation disconnected from other community agencies that are able to support our clients and that’s bypassed here. So I’m in, professionally, corrections heaven because our clients have support and access to supports and treatment that they don’t have at other locations and that’s special to me.

 Here people feel respected, they feel seen, they feel understood, they feel the empathy that all the staff here have for them from the minute they walk in the door. They’re greeted by security, they are greeted by the guys at Info Services, with genuine greetings. It is a genuine place to work, we’ve got genuine relationships but they’re not always easy.  It’s a multi-disciplinary team, we all have very different views and we’re really passionate people, so I don’t think that it’s always an easy thing to be that, but ultimately we are all genuine, we are all passionate, we are all striving for a particular goal and that’s to support the community and support our clients.

 One of the things I’ve been writing about while I’ve been here as writer-in-residence at the Neighbourhood Justice Centre, is the relationship between poverty and crime. Often I’ve seen criminals or heard them saying (now they’re called wrongdoers, there are all these euphemisms) that a criminal thinks that what you see is yours.  That if you see a transistor radio on a bar at a club, it’s yours.  It is this misguided, deluded thing where possessions are actually yours, they don’t belong to anyone except the one who grabs them.

I asked Sue Hayes, Police Prosecutor, ‘When you see the same ones, the locals or the people from Collingwood, Abbotsford, Richmond, whether they’re men or young men or young girls, inwardly you must feel, ‘No, not you again?’ She replied,

 You do but I think you have to learn, Barry, that you also realise when someone—whether they have mental health issues or alcohol or drug issues or other issues—usually it won’t be the first time or the second time, the third time—if they genuinely want to change their life it will take a number of engagements with police, with the courts, for them to actually make the right steps. And sometimes, you know, it will just mean a change for them and I think you have to learn, so that you can remain in the police force, you can’t take on some things. You do what you can, you’ll help, you’ll be a sympathetic ear or whatever, you’ll perhaps sometimes guide people and be involved in that, but you can’t become too despondent because you wouldn’t come back to work the next day.

 You don’t get it right all the time but I think life experience helps a bit too. I think you get a feeling and you have to be a bit careful.  Of course you become a bit cynical. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a good dose of cynicism.

 Last year, I was employed to teach English at a high school in Broome and one night, it was muggy or evaporative or just hot, and I walked by the ultra-modern correction facility there—it seemed to go on forever and ever—and as I passed some officers chatting and smoking by the gate I heard a solitary prisoner cry out something from inside those razor-wired walls. It was really hard to tell what it was he was crying out about, but it was so solitary and plaintive I shall never forget its insistence and penetration. I think it was ‘Oh, God!’ and it just seemed to be so pitiful and heartfelt and upsetting.

Isn’t it odd that a single word or two of them like that, called out in that way can stay in your mind? It was the sense of solitariness that got to me mostly, I suppose—but the solitariness of the imprisoned man at counterpoint to the light-hearted conversation enjoyed between those officers enjoying a cigarette outside the gate.

 

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