It’s a great day to be at the beach – one of those melting mornings when lolling in the waves is the only sensible course of action.
But I’m not at the beach.
I’m in Byron Bay Local Court.
With the The Echo’s usual court reporter away, I’ve been dispatched to chase an animal-cruelty story.
After plonking down on a government-issued plastic chair, there’s every chance I’ll be waiting all day for my guy to have his turn.
Yet despite feeling mildly resentful about the direction my day has taken, I’m gradually drawn in by the tales that unfold in the vault-like courtroom.
It’s the not-so-shiny side of the Byron Shire – drug use, petty theft, drink driving, and the seemingly endless cycle of violence taking place behind closed doors.
Yet behind every case is a personal story that reveals the human condition in a far more profound way than people-watching at Main Beach ever could.
As I assemble myself for the day, the court is hearing a case I quickly dub ‘Fallen Football Star’.
Facing charges of drug possession, the powerfully built youth walks to the chair in the middle of the courtroom with his head down.
Fallen Star has struggled to find direction ever since his representative rugby league career was ended by a ‘catastrophic knee injury’.
He’d managed to avoid any major run-ins with the cops until they caught him with 20 tablets of MDMA (MethyleneDioxyMethAmphetamine) at the Falls Festival.
They initially charged him with supply, but this was later reduced to possession and the jittery giant’s solicitor tells the court the pills were ‘for personal use’.
Magistrate Geoff Dunlevy looks at Fallen Star over his thick-rimmed glasses and declares that 20 pills is ‘a ridiculously large amount of psychoactive drugs for a single person to use’.
Nevertheless, he seems to accept that Fallen Star is no dealer.
The most precious words anyone who has committed a crime can hear are ‘no conviction recorded’.
It means that, despite pleading guilty, they are free to continue life without having to declare to future employers, customs officers and even bank managers that they once broke the law.
Fallen Football Star walks away with the second chance he never had in his football career.
He is not the only one to benefit from Magistrate Dunlevy’s leniency today.
A young panelbeater who inexplicably started throwing punches at police, after they intervened in a drunken fight to protect him, also leaves with his clean record intact.
‘You are on very thin ice, but you have just managed to skate across that ice,’ Magistrate Dunlevy tells panelbeater in a voice that is two-parts headmaster, one-part weary dad.
‘The punches you threw didn’t cause any injury and it appears they didn’t connect with the officer.
‘I’m giving you a two-year good behaviour bond.’
But there are those whom even kind-hearted Magistrate Dunlevy can’t allow to walk free.
Black Baseball Cap appears via audiovisual link from Tweed Heads Police Station.
He has assaulted his 16-year-old son, grabbing him by the throat and pinning him on the ground.
We then learn that the teenager had an AVO out against his father at the time of the assault, and that Black Baseball Cap already has a handful of assault convictions dating back to 1999.
As the man sits quietly, his solicitor tells the court that the assault occurred after the stoned teenager threw a rock that broke the window of a neighbour’s car.
I imagine the youth being grabbed by the throat and silently pray that Magistrate Dunlevy throws the book at him.
Then the whole tragic tale emerges.
We’re told that one month ago, Black Baseball Cap’s other son committed suicide by hanging himself.
Since then, the father has been ‘in deep grief’ and ‘struggling to cope’, as has his other son.
Obviously violent assaults can’t go unpunished, but is it really going to help this grieving family, or the community, to put the father in jail?
The magistrate is left with little choice.
Black Baseball Cap’s prior history, including the fact that he has previously been on good behaviour bonds, means that he has to go to jail.
‘I accept that you’re not a habitually violent man,’ Magistrate Dunlevy says.
‘No, I’m not,’ the man replies, crying.
‘It’s a difficult time and while that helps to explain your actions it does not excuse them,’ the magistrate continues.
The man is led back to the cells to begin a three-month jail term, weeping softly.
If today’s cases are anything to go by, family and domestic offences are rife within the Byron Shire and the region.
Nearly half of the cases on the lengthy court list involve people apparently living in fear of violence from someone they know.
Take ‘Young Mum’, for example.
Attending court to appeal a three-month licence suspension for speeding, Young Mum’s solicitor tells the court she is living in a women’s refuge with her four-year-old son.
‘This is a remarkably vulnerable member of the community,’ the solicitor, Matthew Bogunovich from the Aboriginal Legal Service, says.
‘She’s the victim of persistent domestic violence and is in supported accommodation.’
After successfully applying to have Young Mum’s suspension reduced to just two weeks, Mr Bogunovich reflects outside court on the number of family-violence-related matters that come before the northern rivers’ local courts.
‘Unfortunately there’s a pretty constant flow,’ Mr Bogunovich says.
‘If you were thinking about Byron Bay Local Court as an outsider, you might be expecting lots of middle class people with issues such as speeding and parking fines, but that’s not the case.
‘There are definitely people struggling in the community here, particularly in the areas surrounding Byron Bay.’
‘It’s not all hibiscus flowers and sandy beaches.’