July 2018

The Courts

by Helen Garner

A sorry procession

A day in the life of the Geelong Magistrates’ Court

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 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 aide-mémoire.” 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?

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist. Her books include Monkey Grip, The Children’s BachThe Spare Room and This House of Grief.

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