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Oct 22, 2008

Charge up! It’s court day in Yuendumu

Defendants and family gather under the meagre shade of straggly trees, Aboriginal legal aid lawyers sit with piles of files at two card tables in the sun ... welcome to court day in Yuendumu, writes Crikey blogger Bob Gosford.

The NT Magistrates Court rolled into Yuendumu for its bi-monthly visit late last week. Leading the four-wheel-driven caravan was Alice Springs based Stipendiary Magistrate John Birch, with an assortment of defence lawyers, police prosecutors and staff from the Central Australian Aboriginal Family Legal service in tow. Add the eight members of the Yuendumu Mediation and Justice Group, local and regional NT Police and their ACPO (Aboriginal Community Police Officers) offsiders, probation officers and Court staff, defendants, family members and curious rubber-neckers and it was the best and biggest show to hit town all month.

Magistrate Birch called us all to order just after 10am in the run-down chambers of the now defunct Yuendumu Community Government Council. Her Royal Highness Elizabeth II smiled wanly from the wall. A layer of red dust gathered on any undisturbed surface.

Small groups of defendants and their family members sheltered under the meagre shade of straggly trees and shuffled forward to tell their story to the Aboriginal legal aid lawyers sitting with their piles of files at two card tables in the sun, working through their lists and on a good sunburn for their troubles. The lawyers and their clients have no private facilities and their all-too-brief instructions are taken hurriedly and in the full glare of the public and a hot sun beating down from a cloudless sky hazed by recent duststorms. A small pack of dogs paced restlessly outside the door to the Court, sniffing the legs of all who passed, waiting for their owners to emerge.

Magistrate Birch pushed the Court along at a steady pace unusual to any casual observer of NT Courts — no cuppa-tea breaks, no two-hour-long lunches — just a quick break early in the afternoon so that everyone could go outside for a smoke, a cuppa tea and a quick bite, then back to the fray.

And the list for the two days is long — 74 defendants facing a total of 252 charges — an average of almost 3.5 per defendant. The raw totals include 76 alcohol-related charges, 93 relating to use of a motor-vehicle, 39 charges (at least) arising from two days of September rioting at the nearby township of Willowra and a grab-bag of 44 assorted criminal charges.

The high number of alcohol-related matters is attributed, in part, to the success of the Yuendumu Magpies at the Central Australian Football League’s Grand Final in Alice Springs in late September and the temptation faced by loyal fans to bring a few drinks home to celebrate a glorious victory. And these figures are bloated by the common practice of the NT Police known as “charging-up”.

“Charging-up” is typically used in relation to liquor and vehicle offences and ensures that if the facts fail on one charge, the police are sure to be able to fit the facts to another backup charge. With liquor-related offences most defendants were charged with the trifecta available to police under s. 75 of the NT’s Liquor Act of “bring liquor into”, “possess liquor” and “consume liquor” in a restricted area. Of particular note with this trifecta is that the charge of “bring liquor into a restricted area”, which is commonly viewed as equivalent to “grog-running” — when a guilty plea is entered, “bring liquor” is the charge of choice to put to the Court — with the others usually being withdrawn by the prosecution.

Similar “charging-up” occurs with vehicle-related offenses, where again a trifecta of “drive unlicensed”, “drive unregistered” and “drive uninsured” are commonly listed against a defendant, with two of the three being withdrawn on entry of a guilty plea. The other biggie out here is “drive disqualified”, and at this sitting 25 people are charged with this offence. All of them are likely to add to the gross over-representation of Aboriginal people in the NT prison population — where the 30% of the general population that is Aboriginal accounts for over 80% of the prison population.

Read the rest of this post at Bob Gosford’s Crikey blog The Northern Myth.

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