May 2018

The Courts

by Helen Garner

The court networkers

Volunteers make visiting courtrooms less of a trial

I couldn’t work out who they were, but on days when none of them passed, I missed them: quiet middle-aged women who moved with a light tread along the corridor of the Supreme Court of Victoria, where I sat waiting for the long, sad trial I was following to resume. Sometimes one of them would pause near my bench. They never launched into taxing conversation, but merely offered me a moment of their company. I thought of them as the comforters. Once another of them brought me a spare lamington on a plate. The heavy timber door through which she disappeared was labelled “Court Network”. I wondered if I would ever have the nerve to knock on that door.


A young African man, very black and very slender, is sitting alone in a sunny foyer on the ninth floor of Melbourne’s County Court. She’s spotted him, the court networker who’s letting me shadow her for a morning, but right now she’s in a huddle with two lawyers and an angry woman who in her staggering, mythological beauty resembles a goddess in Homer – Athena disguised as a human. Her son, a drug dealer and ice user, is about to be dealt with inside the court for taking his girlfriend against her will, skull-dragging her, bashing her and fracturing her nose in a small-town Coles Express. He is pleading guilty to a list of charges that fills half an A4 page in a tiny type. His solicitor, a pale young hipster, lays out for the mother the four principles of sentencing. The goddess turns away – oh, her noble profile, her half-closed eyes, her exquisitely curled lips. She could not give a shit that general deterrence is one of the pillars of the system. The barrister tactfully suggests that her son’s violent deeds were “out of character”. “No,” she says, raising her chin. “He’s a very fiery person.” The networker is forbidden to offer legal advice, but she is trying to make the goddess see that it won’t help her son if she blows her top in court: the networker offers to sit with her in the foyer when the CCTV footage of his rampage is screened.

While she is hosing this down I glance over at the African man. He gives me a nonchalant grin. Soon the networker approaches him. Is he a witness? Does he need any help? “No,” he says with a cheerful shrug. “I’m an interpreter.” They both laugh and she steps back.

Many an assumption is overturned here, many a knockback delivered. Networkers touch down, offer a connection, and if it’s declined they withdraw – though often, later in the day when the strain has begun to tell, a court user may be grateful to see a familiar face. Eighty per cent of court network volunteers are women, but more men are joining, and more are needed, especially in the growing area of family violence. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted, but there’s a delicacy to their skill. They call these approaches “outreach”. It awes me to watch them scan a foyer full of confused and frightened strangers, and dive in cold.


A white man is standing with his back against a glass balustrade in the lobby of the courts where family violence matters are heard. His arms are folded across his chest and his feet planted wide – the posture that says Do not fuck with me. My instinct is to pass at speed, but my networker makes a beeline for him. She runs through her patter. He tilts his head as if listening, but his eyes are fixed on the floor, and his face with its weather-beaten skin and bristly little moustache is as hard as a fist. I’m embarrassed by our bourgeois niceness, but the networker quietly waits. He drags his eyes up and hits her with a cold stare. She doesn’t flinch. He mutters between clenched teeth that he doesn’t need anything – his ex is in that court over there and he’s waiting to be called in. I’m about to take a step back when the networker leans forward a fraction of an inch, keeping her eyes on his, and suddenly he starts to blurt out lumps of speech. He’s a Hells Angel. Hells Angels are not a gang. He’s been “reviled and discriminated” all his life. He had three houses and two bikes and he’s had to sell the lot because his ex … all his stuff was on the footpath … he lost his whole life that day … and his son … his little boy … “How old’s your boy?” “Eight.” He twists away to hide his writhing mouth, then turns to us a face shockingly transformed: his eye sockets and lids and upper cheeks have melted as if in an oven.


The nature of the crime is irrelevant to court networkers, and their service is nonpartisan: they will approach an offender or a victim with equal openness. Their aim is to help court users navigate what could be the worst day of their lives. They are trained to listen. At a sentencing they are particularly alert to the bewilderment of an offender’s family, people so traumatised they are not even able to hear. They know how to explain procedure, to allay panic with factual information, to refer lost, stunned people to social services they’ve never heard of. In conversation, acronyms roll off their tongues – DV for domestic violence, VT for vicarious trauma – but though they are carefully screened and trained, they are volunteers, not caseworkers, thus most of them limit their work to one day a week, to avoid being drawn into continuing entanglements that they are not professionally qualified to handle. They are a frontline service and this is their strength.


My networker, searching for a shaky old couple whose son’s case has not yet come up, puts her head into a court. Here, a 20-year-old man has pleaded guilty to a serious charge. Trying to get his mate away from a pub brawl that had turned vicious, he threw a wild U-turn in the car park and accidentally ran down another friend, who sustained a brain injury. The defendant’s counsel is arguing for a community corrections order. He presents his client as “a person who’s well loved”. The room is packed with his earnest cohort, 29 very young men who, with their straggly hair and boots, look like students or new tradies. His early childhood was marred by family mental illness and frightening violence; he and his younger sibling often had to roam the streets all night. But he has worked, he has studied and got his ticket. He has done everything in his power to atone for his terrible mistake: stopped drinking, undertaken every available driving course. He has faced up to his victim: “The two men embraced.” The victim has even come to court: a lanky bloke with a man bun raises his hand, and when he turns his head I see that one eye has the very slightly wild cast to it, the brief delay, that I have seen in a friend’s son who was felled by a gang of thugs one night in the city. The networker can’t stay for the decision. She is due in the foyer. As we slide towards the door, the rows of young men sit motionless, holding their breath, intent upon the brooding magistrate.


My networker is tall. She must have abs and quads of steel, for when she approaches a seated court user she jackknifes forward and flexes her knees to get down to their level. She can maintain this half-crouch without a quiver for minutes at a time. She loves courts, she tells me, because “they’re hectic”.


A broad-cheeked, smiling little woman in her 40s, with her thinning hair in a ponytail and a loop of plastic tube visible under the hem of her loose flowery shirt, asks the networker to help her fill out a form. It’s an application to revoke an apprehended violence order that the police took out a few months ago against her “friend”, after a “domestic incident”. The networker shows her how to deal with the document’s boxes and lists, and the woman signs it. Then she tells us, with a sweet glow, about the wonderful treatment she’s had at the new cancer hospital, the kindness of the nurses, the beautiful cafe on the roof – they’ve got palm trees and everything, anyone can go in! You don’t even have to be a patient! She rattles off her story: “He come round and smashed the windows of me car, front and back. It was only his jealousy. We’re still in love. With m’ cancer he was there by m’ side, to help me. When I’m sick he wants to be near me. But because of the AVO he can’t come to my house. He’s cut the drinkin’. He paid for me windows. I’m from WA. I haven’t got family here. His family accept me – his mum’s a lovely old duck. ’Cause he’s white, and you can see what I am.”


On our way out at lunchtime we pass a court with a sign that forbids entry without ID. The networker slows near a line of three mature-aged men in identical black suits, disposed on foldable chairs. One look at their dog collars and closed expressions tells us who is within: a cardinal up on historical sex abuse charges, half a world away from the gilded palaces of the Vatican. The air of the foyer is charged with a shimmer of power. This is the first time I have seen a networker hesitate. She flicks a look at me. She makes no approach to the priests, with their warning mien, but swerves towards the door. We enter unchallenged and take seats right behind the cardinal. He is hunched like an old buffalo. I conquer a Pilates urge to put my knee to his thoracic spine and pull his shoulders back, to whisper, “Open out that chest.” But how would a networker address a prince of the church? Your Eminence? Your Grace? Father? Sir? Plain old Mister? How about Fellow-sinner? Or Fellow-sufferer? Or perhaps the greeting that men use out there in the anxious foyer: Hey, bro? Now he’s down in the muck with the rest of us, would he answer to that?

 

For more information on the Court Network, visit www.courtnetwork.com.au.

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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