Yesterday I appeared, clean shaven and underslept, in the Melbourne magistrates court to answer the charge of trespass which I incurred last year at a protest calling for the closure of Hazelwood power station. It was quite an experience.
This was the second time in my life that I have been to court. The first was after I dented a car with a drunken teenage kick outside a pub in suburban Melbourne. A long time ago now, I can’t remember much about the hearing, except being slightly annoyed that the judge involved made an incorrect assumption in his statement about his decision to fine me, which I was unable to correct. It wasn’t of great consequence, and his decision was fair, but it still irked me slightly that there could be anything even slightly arbitrary in the execution of such an authoritative role.
And yesterday, again, the same thing seemed to occur. I was denied a ‘diversion’ – an odd construct at the very bottom of an overly complex hierarchy of legal consequences – on the basis of my previous conviction. The dented car.
Now, fair enough, I suppose, but again, it was all just so hopelessly vague and disempowering. I was first given a long form to fill out, which included a question asking if I had ever been convicted of an offense before. Helpfully, it included details about my previous case, which had written underneath in capitals: NO CONVICTION. Naturally, I answered no.
My diversion officer, however, was not impressed by this. A small woman with waist length black hair and bright orange nails (a weekend goth, perhaps?), she smartly replaced my ‘no’ with a yes, offering “you were still guilty” by way of explanation. I could only assume, and can still only assume – or at least hope – that this was the correct thing for her to have done. But when one is alone in a room with a representative of the magistrates court who appears to be changing questions, and answers, against your favour, it is easy to become confused, and upset. Which I did.
Things got worse from then on. My goth officer arrived back, hours later, from my unseen magistrate, and with barely concealed glee reported that my diversion was rejected, on the basis of my previous charge – the dented car. I found this also somewhat confusing, because I remembered being told that as I had been charged as a minor in that instance, I would not incur a criminal record. I asked my goth whether the fact that my previous charge had been as a minor was related to the judge, and she became defensive. She said that I must have been charged as an adult, because the summary she had been given said that the case had been heard in the Wangaratta magistrates court. All cases in magistrates courts, she said, were adult cases.
Now I was very confused. Was she telling me that a seventeen-year-old – my car-kicking age – was legally an adult? Yes, she said. Then, no, or… she didn’t know. Anyway, she said, it’s not her responsibility to know. If I had any problems, I should go and talk to the magistrate.
By this stage, I had become quite desperate to talk to anyone who wasn’t an evil orange-nailed freak, so off I went, to meet my judge. He would be back in court room seven soon, I was told, so I took a seat in its back aisle to wait, glancing occasionally at my fellow accused (I was surprised to learn that in the magistrates court, everyone sits in together, like a Judge Judy audience, and you hear all about what everybody is charged with – it can be quite humiliating for some, I would imagine, like the junkie ten feet to my left charged with fraud for stealing a doctor’s prescription pad).
I have to say, I felt incredibly nervous, sitting there, waiting for the judge. Judges sit way up high, a couple of metres above the public. This geographic supremacy, combined with the authority they have over us, and the absurd bows they evoke from the lawyers, truly lends them an intimidating presence. My heart began racing as I sat there, and I struggled hard to relax. Why was I so nervous? I never get this nervous, I told myself. What was going on? Still, now, I’m not sure. From a psychological perspective, it was fascinating. Little wonder, I thought, that so few people can generally bring themselves to truly confront society’s structures of authority. I normally consider myself quite brave, and quite secure in my convictions, but here I was, my heart pounding like I had just sprinted up a flight of stairs. Quite strange.
I was only calmed, in fact, after I received a text message from my sister, who hours earlier had given birth to my first nephew Liam. Thankfully, I had disobeyed the court’s direction to switch off my mobile phone, instead simply setting it to silent mode. The news filled me with warmth, and happiness, and most important of all, perspective. What could this judge do to me, really? I had a brand new nephew. My sister had a son.
The judge eventually appeared, pink-faced and overweight. What he could do, it turned out, was follow orange nails in first saying that I must have been charged with car-denting as an adult, because the case had been tried in the Wangaratta magistrates court. And then when I protested that I had been seventeen at the time of the offense, to mumble something about it not mattering one way or the other anyway, because I had “faced the courts before”, and that was enough, in his view.
I later found out, by the way, that in Wangaratta, every case appears before the magistrates court, for the simple reason that Wangaratta does not have a children’s court. How such a seemingly important piece of information was not known by either my diversion goth or pink-faced judge I do not know. Like I said, arbitrary, annoying, disempowering. Yep. Huh.
Well, whatever. I didn’t really care any more. I was having a bit of fun by now, perhaps even showing off a little to my fellow accused at how brazen I was being towards the judge. Once you no longer care what they do to you, the power shifts nicely. “You’re the boss,” I told him with a smile.
My next judge was in courtroom six – my sentencing judge. On advice from a helpful-but-slightly-too-busy-to-be-too-helpful lawyer, I was polite, and wrote a letter explaining why I had felt morally compelled to take my action. Here is what I wrote:
In September last year I decided to jump the temporary fence erected at a protest against the Hazelwood coal-fired power station into the waiting arms of the police. The reason I did this is because I am, quite frankly, deeply frightened about the world we are leaving future generations as a result of human-induced global warming, and wished to protest as strongly as possible against our government’s lack of effective actions towards mitigating its effects, which I consider to be enormously unjust and inhumane.
I knew that the more people who jumped the fence and were peaceably arrested on that day, the more attention the protest would garner, and the more awareness of this crucial issue it would raise. I therefore considered it my moral duty to do so.
Despite one youthful brush with the law – I kicked a car when I was seventeen – I am an honest and law-abiding person, and want little more in life than to contribute positively to my family, community, nation and the world. I am currently midway through my honours year in philosophy at the University of Melbourne and am interested in pursuing a career in the fields of political theory and practical ethics.
I have performed a large volume of volunteer work, mostly based upon protecting the rights of the more vulnerable people in the world, and it is this passion that leads me to care so deeply about global warming, for it is those most vulnerable who are already suffering the most severely from its effects.
I would like to humbly ask for leniency in the case at hand today, in recognition of the harmless nature of the act in question, and the good intentions that lay behind it.
I think sentencing judge liked it. She said I was obviously very intelligent, and that while she recognized that I had been trying to promote a cause which veery many in the community sympathize with, it was up to me whether I risked my future by breaking the law. I think perhaps that she noticed that I had not promised not to do it again. There was something a bit emotional in her speech. It was nice. Anyway, I was given a twelve-month good behaviour bond, and sincerely plan to honor it. I will certainly continue to behave in a good, moral manner.
Just like last year