It has been almost ten months since I began working as a criminal defence lawyer in the Central West of New South Wales – hopefully long enough for me to be able to share my thoughts and feelings on my experience to date. The idea of this article is simply to provide a general insight into what life is like for a junior criminal lawyer in regional Australia, something that I hope will be of interest to many of you that have followed my journey thus far.
Where am I?
I left Sydney and moved to Dubbo in November last year, a town of approximately 40,000 people some five hours north-west of Sydney. Most people know Dubbo for its Zoo, which I still haven’t had the chance to visit yet!
What am I doing?
I moved out to Dubbo to join a not-for-profit community organisation which is focused on providing high quality legal advice and representation to disadvantaged Indigenous Australians. I’m one of approximately seven solicitors doing my best to provide such advice and representation here in Dubbo.
In simple terms, after someone has been charged with a crime, it’s my job to help them as their matter moves through the courts, a process represented by the following diagram (click for a larger version):
Practically what that means is (i) helping clients get out on bail, (ii) running hearings when clients want to fight charges, and (iii) making what are known as pleas in mitigation during sentencing – submitting to the court what I believe the appropriate penalty should be, taking into account the objective seriousness of the offence, subjective features and circumstances of my client, and the myriad purposes of sentencing – punishment, rehabilitation, denunciation, deterrence, accountability, protection of the community, and recognition of the harm done to the victim and the community.
The office I am based in services a very large area, and so i’m on the road a lot. To date I have appeared in a dozen different courts, from Gilgandra to the North, Lithgow to the East, Cowra to the South, and Nyngan to the West:
Many of the court buildings date back more than a hundred years, and are full of character:
The travel is enjoyable due to the wide open spaces and variety of scenery out in regional NSW:
Most days I am also fortunate enough to run into these little guys! 🙂
What are the most enjoyable aspects of the job?
There are too many to list. It is such a privilege being able to advocate on behalf of my clients, to get up in court every day and fight for them. It’s rewarding knowing I have been able to keep a young person out of juvenile detention, divert an adult from gaol to receive mental health or drug treatment, or simply hold police to account and ensure they are exercising their powers according to law.
Every day is something new – each time I walk down to the cells I don’t know who i’ll be meeting or what they have been charged with. The work is simultaneously interesting, challenging, and rewarding. Every matter is like a puzzle – putting together pieces of the law and the evidence and seeing if they fit together. In court I have to constantly think on my feet – whether it’s listening to something a witness is saying in preparation for cross-examination, preparing sentencing submissions, or simply arguing points of law with the prosecutor and magistrate.
I feel extremely fortunate to work with so many like-minded people in a very supportive and collegial environment. Not having practised as a lawyer prior to coming to Dubbo, it has been an extremely steep learning curve, but I now feel like I’m starting to find my groove. I couldn’t have made it through the first six months without the support of my colleagues.
What are the least enjoyable aspects of the job?
The realisation that many of my clients are simply the product of the ovarian lottery, and that it could so easily be me sitting on the other side of that perspex down in the cells. Indigenous overrepresentation at all levels of the criminal justice system is a major problem here in Australia. Despite Indigenous Australians making up less than 3% of the population, they make up approximately 28% of the prison population. It is an alarming statistic, and it is the result of widespread social and economic disadvantage.
Unfortunately, it is a problem that is only getting worse:
How do we close this gap? Don Weatherburn, Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, recommends focusing on the following six goals in his book ‘Arresting Incarceration: Pathways Out of Indigenous Imprisonment‘:
These goals closely align with primary risk factors associated with offending, and are things that I unfortunately see on a daily basis: mental health issues, substance abuse problems, a lack of stable accommodation, low levels of educational attainment, and high levels of unemployment.
Implementing these goals will require bipartisan, multi-agency support at both the state and federal level, as well as significant investment and consultation over many, many years. Such a lengthy timeframe when the problem is only getting worse is extremely frustrating, and the sooner we can assist disadvantaged Indigenous Australians with these basics – accommodation, healthcare, education, employment, and rehabilitation in particular – the sooner we can make a significant reduction in the Indigenous incarceration rate.
So that’s the least enjoyable part of my job. Doing my best day to day but in the knowledge that no matter what I do the situation more broadly isn’t changing significantly. I hope in the near future we do have the political will and public support for the widespread criminal justice and social reform needed to reduce Indigenous incarceration, because for too long now it has been a national shame.