David Heilpern was in the early stages of his career as a magistrate when his life was threatened for the first time.
‘This guy had come to town seeking contact with his daughter, but his ex-wife got wind of it and left town with the kids,’ the recently retired magistrate recalls.
‘His reaction was to nail gun the family pet to the door of the house.’
When the matter came to court Mr Heilpern refused the man bail, but the decision was overturned in the NSW Supreme Court.
A few days later, the angry father returned and put a bomb under the court.
‘That was the first of literally dozens of threats to kill that I had to put up with for the next 20 years,’ says Mr Heilpern.
‘There are currently three people in custody for threatening to harm me. And I can honestly say it was pretty much continuous except for a few gaps.’
Opening up for the first time about his career, Mr Heilpern says that the stream of death threats directed toward him and his family contributed to his decision to take early retirement.
‘I refused to be intimidated by that shit, but, yeah, it’s not a good way to live,’ he says.
‘The most recent one involved somebody saying that they’d approached another person to have a contract to have me killed.’
‘That sort of stuff floating around is not good.’
Even more challenging, Mr Heilpern says, is the vicarious trauma he experienced from presiding over cases involving some of the very worst things humans can do to each other.
‘Since the Royal Commission [into child sexual abuse], there’s been a huge number of cases filtering their way through the courts,’ he says.
‘As well as the victims, there’s a huge cost for the personnel involved – the lawyers, the counsellors, as well as of course the police.
‘I had all the classic effects of trauma: hyper vigilance, lack of sleep, and decision fatigue.
‘I’d make 50 hard decisions in a day and come home and Maria would say, ‘what would you like for dinner?’ and I’d say, ‘If I have to make one more fucking decision I’ll crack up completely’.
‘I think I reached point where I just thought, ‘I can do it… and I can apply justice, but I don’t think I want to do that anymore.’
Freed from the task of presiding over a daily cavalcade of suffering, Mr Heilpern is now free to indulge in one of his great loves – theatre.
A passionate thespian from his university days, Mr Heilpern was also member of the much-loved Northern Rivers troupe, the Stand-Up Poets, prior to becoming a magistrate.
Now he is preparing to return to the boards with a one-man show he has written about his experience as a magistrate.
He says audiences can expect pathos, laughter, and the chance to walk for a while in a magistrate’s shoes.
‘The truth is that we’re human beings just like everyone else – we have prejudices, bad hair days, we experience the stresses and strains of life, illness, mental health, the lot,’ he says.
‘I’ve laughed on the bench, I’ve cried on the bench. I mean do people really want us to be automatons?’
‘I’m hoping this show will bring some of that home to people.’
Mr Heilpern says he also looking forward to a return to his activist roots.
He is already working with the community legal organisation Barefoot Law and further collaborations are also under discussion.
‘I’m looking forward to speaking out on issues that I care about,’ he says.
‘I mean, 21 years of not even being able to write a letter to the editor…
It’s not a huge thing, it’s not blood on the tracks. But in effect, you’re a magistrate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
‘I look forward to figuring out what I want to do when I grow up.’