Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 38, Number 10. 22nd May 1975
From The courts
From The courts
From the Courts has proved to be too much for one mere mortal to write week after week; consequently, there are now five of us that are going to be reporting on the happenings in the court for those of you up on the hill who have an interest in what goes on in our legal system. We will try to follow the high standards set by Les Knight in this column to date, but that task will be difficult. Since this column is based on opinion and criticism as much as facts, there will probably be a discernable difference in the columns filed by the various reporters. Hopefully, this variation in viewpoints will be a positive factor in the future and increase the objectivity of the column.
Before getting into the merits of any of the cases that came up while I was in attendance, I am compelled to comment on the physical surroundings of Magistrates Court 1, although I realise that I am probably flogging a dead horse.
For a room that is supposed to embody the very roots of our existence as a society, it was incredibly dingy. It is painted an institutional pale yellow, with paint peeling off the mock Roman columns that are so incongruous next to the hand-made No Smoking signs and the walls covered with acoustic tiles in a futile attempt to cut down the noise. The only panelled pieces of furniture in the room are the magistrates' bench and the press box — although whether there is a hidden meaning in this, I can't say. The desks that are supplied for the prosecutors and the lawyers definitely embody the principle of equality before the law. Oh well, I guess that the New Zealand courts think that dignity and respect come from the actors and not the props — but I think.
By far the worst aspect of the room, however, is the noise. We all know the age-old adage that justice must be seen to be done ... well I would submit that it must be heard to be done as well. I am sure that to the uninitiated it just looks like there is a lot of mumble-jumble and hocus-pocus going on at the front. Even the prisoner in the dock often can't hear the magistrate, and he's the closest one to him. Doors opening and closing, cars starting up outside the open window, people talking, chairs scraping, all add to the din that exists in the room. Consequently, on my second day at the court, I sat up in the press box in an attempt to get a better idea of what was going on, but even that was futile. I couldn't even hear the prosecutor all the time, and he was no more than ten feet from me, Might I suggest that a little money spent on carpets for the floor, oil for the door hinges, and air conditioners (so the window could be closed) would lend the court a dignity that would be well worth the expense.
Magistrates have one of the most difficult jobs in today's society, and I think that on the whole they carry out their duties very well. Sometimes they 'will make judgements that vary with yours or mine, but that is only inevitable. So instead of printing only criticisms of the Bench, I intend to print good, insightful decisions as well. One such case involved a man (around 50, I'd say) who had been arrested on an idle and disorderly charge and who promptly pleaded guilty to the charge, as if he'd been through this before. He had been arrested while sleeping in a railway car at 1.00am the night before, with $1.14 in his pocket. (Personally, I feel that if he committed a crime it was trespass, but I'll leave that for another day.) He was unemployed, so Mr. Hobbs S.M. asked him if he intended getting a job — no answer. So the magistrate told the fellow to step down for half an hour and think about it — to make a decision for a change. I thought this good advice. Anyway, after half an hour with the Salvation Army people, he came back in the dock and meekly said that he wanted to get a job; but his heart obviously wasn't in it. Winter's coming, and in prison you've got a bed and food every day. So the magistrate told him to come beck in two weeks and if he had a job, he would be discharged. If not, he could go 'somewhere else'. This, I think, was a fair disposition of the case, assuming that there should be such a charge a I & D in the first place. The magistrate was making every attempt to keep this man from imposing on the public purse for his support. However, one of the oldest tenets of the common law is that you can't force someone to work. Perhaps in this case the magistrate, to be fair, should have told the man to come back either with a job or $5.00 in his pocket — just so long as he isn't a ward of the state. God knows how many people there are out there who don't work, yet aren't in any trouble with the law because they have lots of money. But it is the law at fault there, not the magistrate.
Another case I thought that the magistrate displayed awareness was when a 45 year old woman was charged with using obscene language in a public place. She had gotten quite drunk in a bar and had wandered out to Courtenay Place where she was yelling obscenities at the world in general and the bartender in particular. She seemed to have a history of this type of behaviour and didn't have a home to go back to, except the Catholic Social Services. Mr. Monaghan S.M. properly diagnosed this as a social not a criminal problem, and remended her for two days so that some solution might be reached with the social services.
However, the magistrate wasn't so lenient when a 26 year old with long hair and a beard came up on a similar charge. He had been playing his guitar on a Wellington street in the hope of collecting a little money, when the police came over to question him. He became abusive when spoken to, causing a crowd to gather. He was arrested and began singing the obscenities as he was put in the police car. The magistrate didn't see this as a social (or cultural) problem, rather he lectured the fellow to 'act your age' and to 'stop behaving as a 10 year old'. It seemed as though the magistrate was upset at the fellow's lifestyle rather than the offence. The fine handed down' of $75.00 was a bit stiff for the offence, I thought. The attitude that the magistrate took may have shown a little social bias against a culture that he didn't understand (not that I condone it). However, if justice is to be dispensed by humans, this is a fact that we will have to live with. I'm sure that the culture represented by the above 26 year old would have just as strong a bias against a 50 year old capitalist businessman in a three-piece suit.