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The court room smelled like I imagined it would, something like an old library, and not any better lit. The building was a bit of an anachronism, gilded edges, dark wood, flat benches, and scroll work on the doors.  We used to look down on it from our 31st floor apartment, just a two minute walk away. It was the Central City Court. It dealt with petty criminal infractions in and around the center of Sydney. Not the commercial matters my barrister-wife dealt with, and not things I tended to be involved in, mercifully. This in mind, it was not surprising that the this was our first time walking inside.


We were there because my wife was punched in the face while walking down the street, and I made a ‘citizen’s’ arrest. It happened a few months earlier, after having a meal with family at Spice Alley, a local collection of Asian restaurants all sandwiched together into an unnecessarily small place to create the illusion of an Asian market. We’d had our fill and were walking home. I was carrying our 18-mo-old.  Penny, my wife, was perhaps two steps in front of me, and to my right.  A chef was walking one pace ahead of her.  As occasionally happens in cities, there was a man babbling incoherently on a step that we were about to walk past. Perhaps the chef made eye contact with the raving man, and that set him off, perhaps it was nothing at all, but he launched himself off the step and threw two punches, the first connecting with the chef, and the second hitting Penny’s jaw while she was trying to step out of the lunging attacker’s path.


What happens next is somewhat in dispute.  Penny says that I ‘threw’ our daughter to her. I seem to recall it being more of a quick handoff.  Either way, our daughter rapidly went from my hands to hers, and I turned. My hands then went under the man’s armpits, lifting him off the ground, my hip and leg went behind his, throwing him backwards onto the pavement, my mouth said something like ‘motherfucker, this is about to be a citizen’s arrest.’  For what seemed like an inordinate amount of time (probably 15 min), I pinned the halitosis-ridden and expletive-effusing man to the pavement. For my troubles, I suffered only a small bruise to my lip from a head-butt.


The police arrived, eventually scribed our statements on a type of small vertical notebook that I hadn’t used since the Marine Infantry Officer’s Course, and made us painstakingly initial each page.  It all seemed outdated because there were closed circuit TV cameras all around the site, but I suppose there was little reason to change methods that worked.


And work they did. As we were ushered into the back of the courtroom with another witness and the now-lucid chef, we were provided with typed copies of our statements that we were expected to corroborate if called to the stand.  Oddly, we were here because, perhaps as one additional point of lunacy, the man was denying that he had committed the assaults.


We sat there for a couple of hours as the judge in his robes growled about the schedule, the tardiness of the van bringing the prisoners from the jail, and generally left no doubt that he was the master of this corner of the universe.  In the end, at the eleventh hour, the assailant decided not to contest his case. There was no point in the face of such incontrovertible evidence in a fair hearing. We were thanked by the police officers for our time, and asked to fill out a form that would direct deposit $50 for our time and trouble into our bank accounts.  We were, after all, merely witnesses on behalf of the crown. The man awaited mental treatment, and what would likely be a relatively short sentence.


This, is what we call “Justice” in this lucky country.


The Next Day

I slid into the back of another courtroom, this one more modern than the first, some twenty stories in the air.  High enough to have a clear view of the bridge and the harbor. The fittings were new, and the seats were separated. This was a new world of justice, but with echoes of the old, the judges bench was still high enough to make stooping elderly men seem imposing, and the seal of the country was still on the wall.


My wife didn’t sit next to me as a witness this time. She sat next to a senior barrister at the bar table awaiting the entrance of three judges from the full Federal Court.  


In the back-left of the courtroom, sat a version of myself the day prior.  He too had an injustice hit him. He made ‘western style’ haircuts in an ISIS-dominated area of Iraq. Being this close to the West led to a fusillade of bullets through his shop window, and still more bullets sent to him in the mail with missives about his impending death, should he linger.


After this, he turned, he picked himself up, got on a plane and came to Australia five years earlier.  He made a bet that in this lucky country, this land of immigrants, that any reasonable person would look at the threats on his life, the continued turmoil in Iraq, and declare that he had the well-founded fear of persecution. This threat would lead to him being declared a refugee.  He too had pieces of paper in his hand not penned by him. A letter of recommendation from his employer stating that he had been a dependable employee, and another showing that his taxes were being collected on behalf of the crown. He believed that these documents, together with the documents on the judges’ table would surely mean that he would not be sent back to danger in Iraq. He further believed that the berobed, somber, people dancing on legal pinheads on his behalf pro-bono would win the day.


The judges filed out, and equally made it clear that they were the masters of this part of the universe, barking at an untimely solicitor that they were ‘not interested in his excuses.’  They didn’t just bark at him, they growled at the barrister representing the Minister for Immigration, calling the review process used to adjudicate the case ‘positively Stalineque’, and queried why the Department of Immigration solicited submissions, but then didn’t need to review them.  They debated sentence construction and legal precedent in the confined area of law that they were able to cover.


While they were masters of this corner of the universe, it was an increasingly-small corner of law indeed. The core of the Department’s decision turned on the fact that he had been in Australia for several years, waiting for case to be heard.  They posited that in the intervening years that ISIS might have lapsed its persecution of Westernised men, and there was no proof that death threats would return, if he did.  While justice delayed may be justice denied, and the hope for a kinder, gentler ISIS may be wishful thinking, the judges couldn’t speak to that.  With the deck this stacked against him, in the face of overwhelming evidence, the man who sat in my position the day before was told that this would not be his country anymore, and that he would have to pay the legal fees of the Minister.  This five-digit debt would be out of the reach of most Australians, and would certainly be out of his reach. It meant that, in effect, because of an unpaid debt to the Commonwealth that any attempt to return on another visa, would likely be denied.  This would never be his country.


I imagine he wishes he could trade places with the deranged Australian who punched my wife.  To be locked up and then released into a safe country is better than to have a taste of freedom and safety in one and be forced back into an unsafe one.


This, too is what we call “Justice” in this lucky country.


If you would like to help level out the scales of Justice:

  • RACS is the service that provides help to asylum seekers.  They found this case, and asked my wife to represent him, and others like him, pro bono.
  • is our social enterprise that tries to provide a first, and most importantly a second step for those few people in Australia who are fortunate enough to be classified as refugees.