Work Hard, Conference Harder: My Sojourn to the Territory

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Annamiek Van LoonThe article Work Hard, Conference Harder: My Sojourn to the Territory is written by Annamiek Van Loon, Senior Associate, Doogue + George Defence Lawyers.

Annamiek is currently based at our Melbourne office. She is experienced in handling criminal cases at the Magistrates' Courts especially where it involves contested charges or bail applications as well as pleas of guilty.

Before becoming a part of Doogue + George, Annamiek was an associate to a County Court Judge in Victoria. She has also worked for another criminal law firm for nine years and has interned for both Victoria Legal Aid and the Criminal Law Section of the Law Institute of Victoria.

CLANT Conference 2022NT Local CourtSupreme Court Visited by Annamiek Van Loon Prior to the CLANT ConferenceNT CourtNT Supreme Court

I went to Darwin to attend the Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory (CLANT) Conference 2022 and watched some court hearings whilst I was at it…

Thanks to my team at Doogue + George having strong ties with the NT criminal justice system, my directors valuing the importance of networking and knowing that conferences can be a great source of information and inspiration, I was lucky enough to fly to Darwin with several of my colleagues recently to attend the fantastic and longstanding CLANT conference.

This conference was due to run last year in Bali, however due to COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions it changed to Darwin and was then cancelled entirely. It was re-scheduled to be held in Darwin this year and fortunately it went ahead!

Court observations

Prior to the CLANT conference starting, I decided to be a tourist lawyer and observe some court hearings in downtown Darwin.

I first went to the Local Court (the equivalent of the Magistrates’ Court in Victoria). The court looked similar to how they look in Melbourne, both from the outside and on the inside. Once I was inside the courtroom observing the proceedings, I immediately noticed some differences, some of which I found interesting and some I found shocking!

  • The judicial officers are called Judges in the Local Court, not Magistrates
  • The defence lawyer and prosecutor cannot both be standing at the same time at the bar table
  • The environment inside the courtroom seems somewhat more relaxed – people dress quite casually, there are more court staff present who interact with each other throughout the hearings. However, bowing to the Judge as they/you enter/leave the courtroom is required.
  • I discovered that a subsequent breach of a Domestic Violence Order (equivalent to Intervention Order in Victoria) attracts a mandatory minimum of 7 days imprisonment (unless no harm was caused, and the court is satisfied it’s not appropriate to sentence in this way). This shocked me. So many of my clients in Victoria would have spent time in custody if the same sentencing law is applied. This law sees many Aboriginal people spending 7-day stints in custody for very minor breaches of DVOs. This is outrageous.
  • I also observed the prosecutors in court resisting matters finalising on the first listing date as they wanted to obtain further information or material. I saw lawyers for clients in custody trying to finalise the matter so they could be released as soon as possible, and prosecutors wanting more time. This also outraged me. If defence are willing to plead guilty to summary matters, and they are in custody, they should be able to do so straight away.

I then went to the Supreme Court to catch some trial action. I was surprised to find the Supreme Court is metres apart from Parliament House. There is not much physical separation between these powers up north! The buildings themselves looked tropical and colonial from the outside. Inside the Supreme Court was a beautiful foyer area featuring portraits of Judges and Aboriginal art.

I was able to catch the prosecution closing address in Court 1 – a local police officer was on trial for rape. I noticed some minor differences to how trials are run in Victoria:

  • The accused sits opposite the jury rather than at the back of the courtroom
  • All lawyers at the bar table sit facing the Judge (i.e. instructors don’t have their back to the Judge)
  • Social distancing and COVID testing is not a thing!

The CLANT conference

The conference itself was fantastic – over three days, interesting and inspiring talks were delivered to the delegates by various players in the criminal defence field – barristers, solicitors, academics, judicial officers, prosecutors, the newly appointed Attorney-General of the NT Chansey Paech, Lloyd Babb SC (Director of Public Prosecutions NT) and others from all around Australia.

Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t one talk that didn’t touch on justice and how it pertains to Indigenous Australians. I was grateful to gain a better understanding of this reality in the NT; it is starkly different to our daily lives in Melbourne. A lot of it was extremely depressing (we heard about unfair prosecutions of Aboriginal (wrongly) accused; were taken through the mandatory sentencing in the NT; and told about the increasing rate of children in custody as young as 10 years old, the majority of whom are Aboriginal, and so on).

What gave hope though was the fact that the new AG and fairly new DPP are both supportive of raising the age of criminal responsibility and removing mandatory sentencing. This is a step in the right direction and I think it’s safe to say all conference attendees are eagerly anticipating this policy and legislative change.

The conference was a great opportunity to meet people from around Australia who work in the crime field. What impressed me was their genuine dedication and interest, their varied experiences, the amazing results they achieve or try to achieve in their jurisdiction (some of which are more rigid than others) and the collegiality and collaboration of all delegates.

I thank my directors for the amazing opportunity to travel to Darwin to attend the CLANT Conference 2022 and see what Darwin is all about.
Date Published: 20 July 2022

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