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A Day in the Life of a Circuit Court in Remote Australia

Road through rural Australia

Early in the morning, a convoy of lawyers, corrections staff, bailiffs, Aboriginal liaison officers, interpreters, registrars, victim’s advocates and the magistrate arrive in the small community on the APY lands. Those who haven’t previously been here find it confronting. The conditions here are often akin to those in a third world country, but the sense of camaraderie soon makes newbies feel at home.

The local Centrelink is turned into a makeshift Courtroom, with the magistrate sitting at one end of a long table, the defence and prosecution on either side and everyone else crammed in wherever they can fit. The lengthy Court list is posted next to the “Papa Wiya” (No dogs) sign but both are merely suggestions.

The waiting game begins as the Police drive around bringing people for Court while everyone else chats outside. Topics of conversation range from the defence lawyer’s ridiculous looking cowboy hat to Bruiser, the aggressive community donkey who is roaming around across the road. The one defendant who has come to Court early brings a football and the prosecutor happily joins in the game. Within an hour, enough people have arrived to begin. The bailiff stands outside, sweating and hollering names. The lawyers wander around trying to find their clients and get adequate instructions, which can be very difficult due to language and cultural barriers, notwithstanding the huge delays in matters that occur.

Inside the courtroom, a large number of defendants are charged with driving offences, including “The Trifecta” (driving unlicenced, unregistered and uninsured). Given the lack of employment and opportunity on the Lands, it seems that most defendants simply don’t have the money to pay to maintain a car and don’t understand the requirements. The magistrate appears sympathetic to this, often converting massive fines into community service where he can, at least the first time. The benefits of the convoy of workers are evident as arrangements between departments are made easily.

More serious cases are also heard during the course of the day, including domestic violence matters. The case workers who work on the Lands assisting victims of domestic violence liaise with the prosecutors throughout, providing information and advocating of the victim’s behalf as required, as it is unlikely that the prosecutors will have had recent or any contact with the victim. Many serious matters fall through or are settled before they get to trial for many reasons, including the recent government decision that trials will now be sent to Coober Pedy or Port Augusta instead of being heard on the Lands.

After the large number of non-appearances is dealt with, Court is over by late afternoon. The convoy packs up and heads to a roadhouse on the highway for the night before doing it all over again. The drinks flow freely as the registrar does her best Shania Twain impersonation and the dancing begins.

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