Until about the mid-nineties, you could drive through, shop, or even live in Ballina and not realise it was on a beautiful waterway. Like so many of our towns, it was as though Ballina was sulking, turning its back on the river as somehow uncouth.
But now, with high rise, and walkways and cafes and parks Ballina is at last embracing the beauty of nature in water, views and green.
So we gathered by the water’s edge at sunset to remember the latest victim of domestic violence, killed by a man on bail.
I granted bail to men who then killed.
I refused bail to several who did not last 24 hours behind bars – shot, stabbed, hanged or drowned in their own vomit. And while I acknowledge the anger directed at the bailor, it is a complex and hard decision.
First, if bail was refused to every man who threatened his partner then the prisons would be overflowing within weeks. As horrible as they are, such threats are par for the course in family violence matters before the courts. Sometimes, they are words designed to hurt, worry and concern. Sometimes they are a precursor to murder. But how to tell the wheat from the chaff is really difficult.
Second, compounding that difficulty, is time.
On a Monday in Lismore local court, I would often have a list of over 100 matters, plus five to ten bail issues, mostly family violence.
On average, I would have a minute or three to consider bail. Domestic violence bail applications and opposition need tons more time than that.
Time to hear from victims and perpetrators, to consider bail conditions and prior records and to weigh up competing interests. This is not a luxury, it is a necessity. List days in the lower courts are, as a colleague once quipped, like putting your mouth over a fire hydrant.
Third, over time you develop a cynicism for both police facts and defendant denials. The former because they often gild the lily and present things as somewhat worse than they turn out to be. The latter because almost everyone denies everything – especially in the steamy, achy, resentful passage that marks many separations. And of course, the accuracy of recollection is decreased because so often everyone is horribly drunk. If you are suss about police facts, and extra suss about feeble denials it’s sort of like firing arrows into the darkness and hoping you don’t pierce someone.
Finally, the laws on bail that the courts work with are simply bizarre. One example – if a person is a first offender charged with possession of three magic mushrooms they must be refused bail unless they show cause why bail is appropriate. If a person is charged with their umpteenth ‘breach AVO involving violence’, then there is a presumption in favour of bail.
And at the back of your mind are the numbers of people in custody on remand in NSW. ‘Remand’ means that you have been charged with an offence, and refused bail while you wait the months, and sometimes years, before your case is heard.
Four out of ten prisoners have not been convicted and are on remand.
For those under 18, it is three out of four. Half are First Nations people. Many will not be sentenced to custody after a hearing. It is pretty hard to argue in the face of those statistics that we need to refuse more people bail. Maybe just different ones.
And where are the solutions to this damnable scar? At the vigil I mentioned changing attitudes, priorities and supporting victims. To this list I also could have added key domestic violence offence predictors – controlling, sexism, alcohol, past trauma and isolation.
Will vigils like the dusk vigil at Ballina make a difference?
We will never know for sure. But sitting in silence by the river at sunset with hundreds of likeminded caring people, shedding tears and fears, paying tribute to survivors and victims is surely a step in the right direction.
I rather fancy that just as Ballina now hugs its river, it bravely confronts this horrible crime.
I know something you don’t know. And when you do know what I know and can’t tell you, you will be gobsmacked about what you now know, and did not know. You will wonder how your favourite columnist could keep such a stunning secret, and why I could not tell you.
Keen watchers of the media will know that a prominent person has been charged with two rape offences in Toowoomba, which occurred on 21 October 2021. They are back in court next month.
And because of an extraordinary law in Queensland, those charged with sexual offences cannot be named, even once they appear in court, until they have been committed for trial – a process likely to take over a year. You can see the point – why should someone’s name be slurred until there is at least a case to answer? Of course, this does not apply to other crimes, like drug offences. Only alleged sex offenders are offered this grace. And it means that other victims – and so often there are many – cannot be spurred on to report (because they know they are not alone).
So here I sit, with masking tape around my mouth, gagging, threatened with prison if I tell you anything that could identify the charged person – the worst kept secret in the twittershpere and legal gossip rooms. Here’s a hint. It is not Christian Porter.
♦ David Heilpern is a former magistrate and is now Dean of SCU Law.
So by the sounds of things the legal system is simply failing the people. Time for a citizens audit of the law!
A clear indication (as if it was needed) that our legal system is broken and not serving the people who need it.
Of course if you defraud the government of a few hundred dollars you’re thrown into gaol and left to rot for longer than a rapist.
And I recall my very young grandson singing ‘It’s a small world after all’ aged 4. Kids aren’t dumb.
Might be time to consider going without male partners. Male partners are unnecessary now and will be seen as a disadvantage in the future. Might be time for a good long look at ourselves.