Stepping out of the aeroplane and into the blistering Darwin heat was like walking straight into the body of a furnace. My breath was embarrassingly laboured from the heavy air and I was sweating profusely as I clambered into the backseat of a taxi. As I reminded myself that this was going to be home for the next four weeks, I could not help but silently wonder what I had gotten myself into. Having never visited the Northern Territory before, I really did not know what to expect. Every time I told someone that I would be living up in Darwin for a few weeks, the responses I received were more or less the same. “Look out for the crocs,” people would unhelpfully chime in, followed closely by “hope you are prepared for the heat!” But what people failed to tell me was just how vibrant, diverse and absolutely captivating Darwin is.
Working in the chambers of the Local Court was a unique and invaluable experience. As I have never had the opportunity to speak to, let alone work amongst, judges before, I was quite intimidated and hesitant at first. However, I soon came to realise that the judges enjoyed discussing their court matters. Conversing with the judges gave me a unique insight into their thoughts and reasonings while sitting in court, such as their reasons for sentences, how they took certain matters into account, their thoughts on the credibility of witnesses and how strong they thought the prosecution’s or defence’s case was.
I had the opportunity to sit in on a variety of matters in different court rooms during my time at the Court, including the Domestic and Personal Violence list, workplace health matters, civil hearings and committals. By far my favourite type of matters to observe were the ones on the unique Mental Health list, presided over by the Chief Judge, Dr Lowndes. If a judge or the accused’s lawyer felt that the accused’s offending may be connected to a mental health issue, they were referred to this list. Orders such as a court clinician’s report, a treatment program or even a discharging of the charges could be made, depending on the accused’s circumstances. As untreated mental health issues can play a significant role in an offender’s behaviour, it was incredibly uplifting to see that the Court had taken such a proactive step in attempting to reduce recidivism rates of those with undiagnosed or untreated mental illness.
I was also fortunate enough to attend a coronial inquest. As this particular inquest involved a highly publicised matter, the court was abuzz with media. The Coroner reiterated that the purpose of a coronial was not only to identify the causes of the person’s death, but also what procedures and processes, if any, had not been followed, and what needed to be implemented in the future to ensure that such deaths did not happen again. I found it particularly interesting that the Coroner frequently interjected during certain witness examinations to remind them that this was not the first time that he had presided over such an inquest of eerily similar circumstances. This really reiterated that these inquests are effectively pointless if the recommendations are not followed.
The most rewarding aspect of the internship was the opportunity to work with Dr Lowndes, an incredibly interesting, intelligent and humble man. As Dr Lowndes was usually very busy, I was often tasked with researching and interpreting particular statutory provisions in order to assist him in judgements that he would be handing down. The opportunity to apply my theoretical knowledge to real-life scenarios, and often ones where no binding case law existed, was the highlight of my internship and something that I am sure would equally excite all law students.
I was also fortunate to travel on circuit to Nhulunbuy, a remote township on the Gove Peninsula and a stronghold of Aboriginal culture and traditions. Flying in and out of Nhulunbuy with a judge, two court orderlies, NT Legal Aid Commission (NTLAC) and North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) staff and interpreters, as well as having to organise certain defendants to be flown in to appear in person, really reiterated the sheer costs involved with running the numerous circuit courts. While governments tend to push a ‘tough on crime’ stance and sensationalist media headlines are quick to condemn restorative justice policies as a waste of money, the real waste of money is having to send all these personnel out to these circuit courts. If more money was spent on restorative justice, support services and assistance to remote Indigenous communities, rather than building more jails or introducing stricter bail reforms, the need to run these circuit courts may actually diminish.
Interning at the Local Court was a challenging yet rewarding experience and was by far the most dynamic and interesting internship that I have been fortunate enough to participate in. Not everyone has the opportunity to work in such close proximity to so many judges, and I consider myself very fortunate to have been given this opportunity by the Aurora Internship Program and Dr Lowndes.