The reality of justice

It was a regular weekday morning in August last year when Michael found himself charged (again) with doing the kindy run on his way to work. For some reason that day our ute was laden with parcels, as was his parent’s trailer which was hooked up at the back. When an officer on a motorbike pulled him over, he figured it must have had something to do with the car or  trailer (we were having constant difficulties with the wiring in our boat trailer, were the tail lights playing up again?!).

He was genuinely surprised to find the officer accuse him of using his phone while driving.

Now because of how this all panned out, I’ve had the opportunity to watch the officer’s helmet cam footage and listen to the audio of events. There was no evidence Michael was using his phone in the two seconds (no exaggeration) in which he was in the officer’s field of vision. Luckily, the Magistrate agreed.

Yep, this one went ‘all the way’! (to the local Mags court, anyway).

A-magistrates-court-007I won’t relay all the details, but let’s just say Michael spent a decent chunk of time attending court to plead, filing a submission to the Police Prosecutor, and then appearing as a self-represented defendant at a trial that lasted for well over an hour, in which he even had to cross-examine the officer!

The thing that struck me during this whole process (which lasted about 7 months) was how grossly inaccessible the legal system must seem to many people who find themselves in it. Even with several years of law school under my belt, I had to read the summons a few times to work out what on earth was going to happen at that first appearance. Loaded with phrases like “herewith” and “in the forenoon“, it’s hard not to read these archaic documents as structured to bamboozle.

The video footage also shows the power dynamic that exists between police officer and accused. Despite only having a fleeting glimpse of the vehicle from a side street, with the sun causing a reflection on the window that completely blocked visibility, the officer was forceful and adamant about his accusation. Michael – ever polite and restrained, a fact which proved rather important at trial! – attempted to clarify the accusation and discuss the issue. After a few attempts he was told he could “take it to court”. While I’m not suggesting the officer did anything expressly wrong, the power dynamic was clear and the officer used it to his advantage.

Then there’s the time and money. Defending the case took about two full days, and all for a fine worth a few hundred dollars and some demerit points. However if you’re on a really tight income, that’s a horrible choice to have to make – take time off work for multiple court appearances (not always possible and only financially manageable if you get paid leave) or simply cough up the fine. There’s also the vague threat of extra costs should the case be found against you. We definitely contemplated ‘just paying it’, but it really cut deep knowing that it was a completely untrue accusation.  The reality is that there would be many people for whom a fine like this would break the bank.

I know there are vital community services such as Legal Aid available, and this experience makes me wonder how they keep up? Michael and I are both literate, educated and have enough financial stability to make a choice about how we handled this case. He was confident to handle his own defence (and more than a little chuffed to win!). But it’s not hard to imagine how different the experience could have been in different circumstances.

“Justice is open to everyone in the same way as the Ritz Hotel”
– Judge Sturgess

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