Melbored? – The Melbourne Magistrate’s Court

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This article first appeared in Farrago (Issue 3, 2013)

When people put together their bucket list, “going to court” doesn’t usually make the cut. Much like prisons, brothels, and the Docklands, the courts are one of those places Melbournians have cruelly stigmatised.

I personally don’t read much into the bad reviews. After all, my most recent court appearance was an engrossing morning of entertainment. I can’t say the same for the drink drivers and serial public urinaters with whom I shared the room, but let’s be honest – court isn’t for everybody.

The Melbourne Magistrate’s Court was my venue of choice. While it lacks the judges and juries of the County or Supreme courts, it’s the judicial system’s answer to the round robin. Within the space of an hour, spectators can watch not just one case, but many. One minute, you could be scoffing as a suited-up hoon argues he’s never done a burnout in his life. The next minute, you could be empathising with a homeless man as he defends his right to steal an apple.

Admittedly, the Magistrate’s Court isn’t as sexy as its more-acclaimed cousins. The magistrate doesn’t get to wear a wig, nor does he have a hammer. Rather, he’s equipped with nothing more than dry sarcasm, a keen ear, and a poker face that would put Lady Gaga to shame. He’s astute enough to expose every flaw in the defendant’s argument. At the same time, he’s human enough to consider the personal back stories behind every felony.

There may only be one magistrate, but there are plenty of judges in the room – myself included. Nobody wants to be judgemental, but it’s hard to resist when you’re surrounded by alleged criminals. Every time a person enters the room and curtsies towards the magistrate as though he were Mecca, those seated in the public gallery instinctively turn their heads towards the door.

Half the time it’s only a solicitor. Other times it’s quite clearly the accused. Then there are a few moments when it’s too ambiguous; one cannot ascertain whether it’s a lawyer who forgot to shave, or a felon hoping their snazzy dress sense will lighten their punishment. Working out the answer is just one of many games the crowd can play without leaving their seats.

First-time court spectators can get their daily dose of schadenfreude by playing the “what are they in for” game, a guessing contest with surprising results. The more experienced courtroom follower is more likely to try their luck at “guess the verdict”.

At the end of the day though, these are nothing more than crude sports, which trivialise the situation at hand. Regardless of how exciting or dreary the courtroom action may be, the entertainment value is irrelevant.

This fact hits home when the terms “domestic violence”, “mental illness” and “suicide watch” are suddenly thrown into the mix. It is at this stage you realise that the person sitting two rows in front of you is facing one of the most critical moments of their life. The difference between a guilty or non-guilty verdict might well be the difference between a life well lived and a life wasted.

The true value of going to court is not found in the cheap thrills. Rather, a visit to 233 William St can help us all better understand Melbourne’s crime figures. In the newspaper, all we hear of are perpetrators and offences. But in court, we see vulnerable people and poor decisions.

Daily court listings are available at https://dailylists.magistratesvic.com.au/browse-court-lists.aspx

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