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October 22, 2021

A Magistrate’s story – Part 2 – Threats, trauma and theatre

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Part 1 –Advocacy, arrows and activism

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.

Recently retired magistrate David Heilpern opens up about his career. Image Jeff ‘not guilty your honour’ Dawson

‘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.’

Vicarious trauma  

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.’

Theatre

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.’


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13 COMMENTS

  1. David Hailpern was one of our better magistrates. Its a big loss to our community for him to step down but totally understandable. I wish him all the best in this next phase of his life. But mainly I am writing to thank him. I’ve never been in court. Never had to worry about which magistrate or judge I was going to appear before but I know from working in law that everyone, the lawyers and the lawbreakers, hoped to be in front Heilpern because they knew they would be dealt with fairly. Thank you David for your service to our community.

  2. I recently heard the story of a young man who successfully undertook a Government-funded “carers” course and was offerred a job at the first aged-care facilty he tried out for after completion. He was rejected because several years ago he was charged with driving with traces of marijuana in his blood. He was acquitted. When he was knocked back for his job at the aged-care centre he was told that he could never get a job in the aged-care sector nor in any government service. Can this be right?

  3. We can but stand in awe of people like David. His commitment to justice and his bravery to follow through on behalf of the defenceless is truely inspiring. If only there were many more who have the fortitude and determination that David has shown while a magistrate we all would be far further along the road to being a civilised society.
    All the very best in your new life Mr Heilpern.

  4. Gordon ,
    We have been at the mercy of fascist governments for decades , this guy is a bastion of sanity in the face of unbelievable idiocity. For God’s sake, We had Tony Abbot as the minister for Aborigines ,… and women !
    David was the only hope for sanity and honesty in this local legal system, which is designed to protect the wealthy from justice, while preventing the poor from any recourse to representation.
    Cheers, G”)

  5. Thank you so much for all the work and personal sacrifices that you and your family undertook to represent social justice David.
    I cannot wait for your return to ‘the boards’. With delight I recall a camping story you shared with the audience, when you were ‘a lad’. It was so hilarious that I had tears running down my cheeks. Sharing it with friends still elicits the same response.
    Byron needs a good laugh David and you now have heaps of new material to share. Go for it Thespian you.

  6. I must say I had never heard of David Hailpern, but man what a legend & illuminous shining light within our legal system he was. Just reading the many passionate tributes above made me want to say THANK YOU David for all your years of devotion & courage, not to mention ‘fairness’ in the toughest job in town. IF ONLY THE LEGAL SYSTEM HAD MORE LIKE YOU. Enjoy your retirement BUT I for one am longing to see you stomping the boards in the Drill Theatre & elsewhere. You are a rare gem & possibly an endangered species.

  7. Congratulations on your retirement..your one of a kind now yoyr time to relax and enjoy life..Excellent magistrate old school very nice person hope when your show hits the theater plenty of notice steve and i wull travel from sydney to be in audience best wishes thanks for memories in court…

  8. I had the privilege of being Court Officer to David Heilpern , on the few occasions he sat at Sutherland Court.
    Magistrates vary, in their attitude and decision making with defendants. Their personal views can influence their decision making, that’s human nature.
    But the common sense, on a personal level, offered up by this Magistrate, was gold.
    I found myself writing his words of wisdom on my notepad. The common sense, spoken from the heart, resonated on defendants and most of those in his courtroom.
    This is a thinking caring man. No ego! No power playing… just straight forward honesty from his heart.
    I have read his books and highly recommend them.
    Sir, I wish you peace and pleasure in your retirement from the bench. You left behind a gap that may never be filled with your like again. Your are inspirational and compassionate. One of the very few who gained my wholehearted respect, and for that alone, being a gift from me, to you, through you! I thank you Sir.

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