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Always two sides to every story

Magistrate Colin Strofield wishes the public gallery was full so people could understand the court. Photo and video: Geoff McLeod

Magistrates are expected to treat all people equally and fairly, without fear, favour, affection or ill will.

They deal with a huge volume of work. More than 90 per cent of all matters that go before the court go through the Magistrates Court, although many people do not understand exactly what they do.

Magistrate Colin Strofield stepped into the role more than 15 years ago. He is currently sitting in Brisbane but has sat in Charleville, Holland Park and Southport.

He sat down with Proctor to share a snapshot of what a working day looks like; the best parts of the job, some challenges that come with the role, and looking back, the advice he’d give to himself when he first started practising.

What’s a ‘regular’ day?

I know what I’m doing each week and each day. And like most Magistrates, as I say, you know what you’re doing. You know where you’re going to be, I should say, rather than what you’re going to be doing.

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You don’t always get to see the files before you start court, so sometimes it can be a surprise, but generally you know where you are. You also know who your clerk is. We normally have a clerk allocated to us for a 12-month rotation, so your clerk gets used to your habits; what you like to do, how you like to do things, when you like to be informed when court’s ready to start, because my approach to people is: whilst court should start at nine o’clock and I expect to start at nine o’clock, I understand there’s difficulties and delays in getting into our building, for example.

We’ve got to go through security for good reason. There’s lots of things that come out of … that people want to bring into the courtroom which you might be surprised about, and people will often take the time before court to talk for the first time, rather than talking about the issues beforehand. They generally wait to the day and, if people want to talk, I allow them time to talk things through. It just narrows the issues down, and, more often than not, the issues are narrowed so far down that matters resolve without actually a formal hearing as such, as today was my hearing list – domestic violence hearing list.

Can you tell us about the Southport Specialist Domestic and Family Violence Court?

I had been to Charleville and had a light bulb moment where I realised, in my view, that domestic violence was not a private matter; it was actually a matter where it involved the community. It certainly involved the parties, but it involved a form of accountability by the community, and police in particular, to address what is an insidious part of our life and things in our community.

I had finished my time at Charleville and was very fortunate to be transferred to Holland Park which was my location of choice, and each Wednesday afternoon I had a small boutique domestic violence court, a specialist court – wonderful people from the Women’s Legal Service, Queensland Police, prosecutors, Men’s Line, the local lawyers, would provide free duty lawyer advice to people coming before the court. And even though we were hindered by space, we were able to function as a specialist court unlike any other court – other than a court that had been set up by Magistrate Hennessy in Rockhampton some years beforehand, but unfortunately the funding didn’t allow for that court to continue.

The Dame Quentin Bryce report, the Not Now, Not Ever report came out and she made a recommendation there should be a trial specialist domestic violence court at Southport. I was fortunate the then Chief Magistrate Judge Rinaudo invited me to take up that position which I did. Initially it was for six months, but not long after it started, the attorney indicated that it’d be for two years, so I went down there to Southport for two years. And I was very fortunate to have dealt with some really wonderful people; community services, police, lawyers, court staff – excellent court staff, just everyone wanted to be engaged, wanted to be involved. So it was just a continuation of the wave of interest that Dame Quentin Bryce had created, together with the unfortunate events of Luke Batty I should say – the name Rosie Batty I’m sure is familiar to you.

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So on that wave we continued to ride the interest and set up a specialist model, and the model is still operating in a slightly different form, but it’s now been rolled out across the state.

What’s your morning routine at the courts?

I always just stop and think that I’m going to be dealing with the lives of other people, it’s not me, and I always make sure that my clerk – I’ll ask before I walk into the courtroom – I’ll say ‘what do we have?’ And it might be four hearings, 78 applications, whatever it might be, so that just sort of gives me that sort of moment to stop and think, ‘well, let’s start’.

I will often stop and think about what it must be like to stand in the shoes of those people who are standing at the bar table, and I’m talking about not just the aggrieved and the respondents, but the police officers and the barristers: ‘have they had time to prepare? Are they on top of the material?  How might this fall out during the course of the day?’ But, I always have this little thing where I ask my clerk, ‘what have we got?’.

How is your work day broken up and is a lunch break is a ‘usual thing’?

It is these days – a lunch break is a usual thing these days. In my early enthusiastic days as a very junior, inexperienced Magistrate, I used to think that I just had to work all day and finish everything, but I wasn’t thinking about the welfare of, particularly my clerk, who, they’re entitled to have a lunch break. And the parties at the bar table are also entitled to have a break.

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Often the lawyers would like to punch on through – I know that, and there’s a cost consideration for that, but I like to think about everyone in the courtroom, rather than just one or two. Normally I’d stop at one, and I’ll go back to court at normally 2.15 in the afternoon and I’ll deal with any urgent applications. Otherwise I have a few administrative matters to deal with like considering the issue of subpoenas for production of evidence or witnesses, determining questions of adjournment applications on the paper, and papers, and things like that.

But I also like to use the afternoon to read the District Court decisions – the domestic violence decisions, so I search the website every day for all new decisions to try and read those, or at least read as much as I can so I’m aware of what the District Court is saying about certain parts of our work – hopefully having some idea of what’s going on around me, because it’s a huge jurisdiction.

It’s taking up a lot of the court time just because of the volume of work that there is with DV. And, I should say, I do that four days a week at the moment, and on the fifth day – the Friday – I get thrown into the general list, so I could be anywhere. But it is what it is, so just deal with what’s in front of me. 

What did you practise as a lawyer?

At Crown Law where I did do some civil litigation but as a junior lawyer, but my particular field there was coronal inquests, so I did a lot of work for corrections in deaths in custody. I also did a lot of work for departments which resume land for roads, railways, dams and those sorts of things, but in 1993 I think it was, I accepted an invitation to travel down to the Queensland Police Headquarters to be an independent legal adviser to the Police commissioner.

It flowed from the one of the recommendations from the Fitzgerald Inquiry, that the Police Commissioner should have independent legal advice rather than receiving legal advice from police officers who had law degrees. So I went down for three months on a three-month rotation – I ended up spending 13 years at the police services.

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I had the great pleasure of working with James Patrick O’Sullivan – anyone who was around in 1988 and beforehand would know he’s… well I found him a complete icon. And then when he retired I had the immense pleasure of working with Bob Atkinson – just absolute gentleman, thorough gentleman. So that’s 13 years of that which was… and it was great training for me as a Magistrate because you I would be asked questions on the spot; asked for an opinion or a response to what – not just operational matters but a whole range of matters. And I was given some experience in giving opinion there and then.

So it’s a bit like making a decision as a Magistrate – you have to make a decision, say, about whether evidence is admissible or not during the course of the trial, whether or not certain facts will reach a particular legal conclusion. So making those decisions was a very, very… I found it very beneficial after I stopped and thought about the role that I played in the Queensland Police Service. And the Queensland Police Service is not just handcuffs and lights and sirens; it’s much more than that… there’s industrial issues, there were employment issues, disciplinary issues – I even got invited to look at a contractor by an aeroplane one day, so that’s quite remarkable when you think about it. So very good fortune there.

How does the function of your role fit within the broader legal profession, and what is being a Magistrate is all about?

I think it’s all about ensuring everyone in the room – in the courtroom – is given a fair and equal opportunity to put their case forward, but to be fair. And to be as fair as the facts can allow you to be. I think that’s probably one of the most important things – treat everyone fairly. When you look at our oath, we are expected to treat all manner of people equally and fairly, without fear, favour, affection or ill will. And that’s what I try to do, and I think that’s important; those who appear before the court – whilst they might not be happy with the outcome in that they weren’t successful, at least they were given the opportunity to be treated, and were treated fairly. That’s probably my most important message about the courts – to be fair.

What’s the major difference between your role and others in the court?

Comparing it to a lawyer, being a Judge or Magistrate, you are making decisions about a set of facts for example, and there are always two sides of the story. Whereas, as a practitioner, I was always concerned about what case I was trying to put before the court for example, or the barrister I was instructing. So you look at your side of the story and you think about the other side of the story, but you are more focused on your side. Whereas a judicial officer, you take into account both sides and there are always two sides at least.

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That’s probably the main thing, and there is a difference in writing an opinion to writing a judgment, because again it’s about explaining to the person who won why they were successful, and explaining to the person who didn’t win why they were unsuccessful. And that’s important – that people get to know or hopefully understand why they weren’t successful. You can’t keep both people happy all the time, but at least explain things so they understand it.

What time of day do you typically write these opinions and/or judgments?

Most of the writings that I do are actually done at home. I spend some time in chambers trying to write judgments, but you, time doesn’t always allow you to do that. Most of my judgments are written at home, and unfortunately, I have to say, not in my study but at the kitchen table. Maybe that explains why some of my judgments look the way they do, because I’ve done them at the kitchen table.

What are some of the regular daily challenges?

I suppose the volume, just the sheer volume, is something that does have an impact on what you do. The numbers of people coming before the courts – not just in domestic violence – but right across the board, has increased. That and unrepresented persons who appear before you – they have little or no understanding of the law; little or no understanding of court practices and procedures. And it’s important they are treated fairly, and it’s important they’re informed of those practices and those procedures directed to the law without giving them legal advice.

They’re huge challenges because that takes up so much of your time of that fairness; that you’re hopefully extending to a person who’s not represented, and unmeritorious applications are also an issue that, you know, bearing in mind the balance of fairness, but if it’s got little or no legs … it’s … you just need to explain to people in fairly clear language that their application’s not going to be successful.

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Those challenges are harder to deal with than the aggressive person who comes before the court who wants to be argumentative. I find making sure that people are treated fairly is a greater challenge to me than dealing with some angry person, or some person who has a particular view about the courts, or society, or police, or their opponent, or whoever it might be.

How often do you deal with the above?

I think it would be unusual if it didn’t happen almost on a daily basis, because when you think about it, like Queensland’s a huge state. We’ve got 102 courthouses, 100 magistrates, we come into contact with – 94 per cent of all matters that go before the court go through the Magistrates Court, so the chances of dealing with those people are reasonably high.

Do you have to have a ‘thick skin’?

Yes, it’s often it’s the institution that people get cranky at and this might seem a little quirky, but to me the most important person in the courtroom is the person I’m dealing with at the moment. So once I’ve dealt with that angry person, the next person is the most important person that I’m going to deal with, so I need to focus on that person and not think about whatever the other person said to me or said about me … other than those people who want to suggest that I’m corrupt – they create a little bit of discomfort I suppose. 

What strategies do you and fellow Magistrates employ to take care of wellbeing?

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Strangely you should say that – it’s not an original idea but I organise, every few months, a lunch with all the Magistrates. So all the Brisbane Magistrates, we all get in – they all get invited to come and generally most of them do come subject to their availability. We just sit around and talk about anything and everything, but as a group it’s a fairly collegiate court, the Brisbane court. You know, of course people have their own opinions and views about things and that’s how it should be. We’re a church which is part of the community; we need to all have our own views.

Most things are dealt with – if you spot one of your colleagues who appears to be sort of struggling a bit, you know there’s always an open door approach to people. People knock on each other’s doors to make sure that they’re okay.

And talking about what we do with each other, that’s another strategy. And that can be in a group forum, so at morning tea that might be a good place where people will start talking about an issue that they have; an issue in a whole range of things including about, ‘how do you think I should deal with this problem (or this submission)?’, and it’ll be bounced around. It’s not unusual to get a knock on the door – someone will say, ‘have you got a minute?’ and it’s just, ‘what do you think about this?’. That open door policy works pretty well. I have to confess I stole the idea from Magistrate Callaghan.  It’s not an original thought, I can’t claim that. 

What are the misconceptions about a Magistrate’s role?

I don’t think a lot of people actually know what a Magistrate is or does.  People certainly understand what a Judge is, but not what a Magistrate is. Even though the role is very, very similar/the same, other than, I suppose, in criminal matters we are the Judge and the jury. Whereas in a criminal matter in the District Court for example, the Judge determines the law, the jury can determine the facts.

It’s because so much of what we do is recorded in the media and the media have the ability to determine, I suppose, the perception of what we do. I’d actually like the courtrooms to be full of the public – the public gallery to be full, so the people could come and actually see what happens in court. I think there’s a lack of understanding of, that we as judicial officers have an obligation to treat everyone fairly without fear, favour, affection or ill will.

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We also have an obligation to apply the law and that’s what we try and do. We try to apply the law as to the best of our ability, but people don’t understand there is a law that we have to follow, for example, with sentencing people – the Penalties and Sentences Act 1992 (Qld) … that’s our guideline, our Bible.

And as a Magistrate, as the person who determines the law, we would be expected to apply the law if we know about the law. So sometimes, for example, sentencing is often misunderstood. And people are given ‘soft sentences’ in the eyes of the community, because they don’t understand that there are a number of factors that we have to take into account; age, history, all those sorts of issues, but I suppose that’s a matter about communication.

But whether or not it’s something that interests parties – you know, interests the community to be informed about those things or not is a matter for the community. But I think every Magistrate I know certainly does everything they can to ensure they apply the law to the best of their ability.

What’s best part of your work day?

This is not work-related but it’s going home to see my grandchildren – that’s the best part of my day.

The best part of my (work) day is when you’ve dealt with a matter and the legal representatives or the parties themselves will say ‘thank you’. That’s not something which is commonly seen in our courts. You know, if you’re in the Arrest Court and you take someone’s driver’s license off them for drink driving, and say ‘you’re disqualified for three months’, they’re hardly going to say thank you.

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But when you apply the law as best you can to the facts and come to a conclusion, and the parties say thank you, and they feel they’ve been treated fairly… those two words ‘thank you’ do mean a lot to your day. Because, you know, some days with volume it’s just continuous. If you’re dealing with 90 applications in a day, you become quite tired, but every now and again if someone says thank you, it makes a difference.

After all, we might be judicial officers … we still live and breathe the same as everyone else; we are human. I know some people might not think that, but we are human.

What would you do with an extra hour in the work day?

Make sure that I read all of those decisions that I haven’t read completely, and read them a couple of times, because I might not have picked up what it was that was being said in that decision by reading it the first time. Probably spend more a bit more time on correcting some of my written decisions as well because sometimes you reread them and you think I should have said X rather than X plus two. Just those little things; just having a little bit more time to reflect. 

What advice would you give himself if you could go back to your first day as a lawyer?

‘Don’t be so nervous’. I can still see myself appearing in the Supreme Court on my first day in March of 1990. I was working for the Crown Solicitor’s Office and there was a process back in the days – those older solicitors will remember these days of third-party disclosure, where a government department would receive a notice to produce certain material – police officer’s notebook, or whatever it might be because it was a motor vehicle crash.

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And my job was to go across to the Supreme Court or District Court, and say to the Judge in respect of the application for the subpoena or whatever: ‘I neither oppose nor consent’. That’s all I had to say; those five words. The first time that I appeared I was so nervous, all I could hear was thump thump thump – that was actually perspiration hitting my belt on my pants, I was that damn nervous about it.

My first day as a Magistrate, I was completely awash with new information and I was incredibly nervous because I was worried that I was going to do something wrong, because the expectation is that this cone of superintelligence comes upon you when you become appointed as a Magistrate, and then I was going to do something silly. So I was very cautious and that’s probably not a bad approach, but I would probably be a little more relaxed next time if there was a next time. 

What are other interest areas of law outside of domestic violence?

I suppose general crime is something that I’m interested in and I do like to conduct hearings rather than a callover. A callover becomes a little too robotic, whereas a hearing you actually need to stay focused, listen very carefully, determine questions of evidence, objections, determine questions of fact, apply the law and come to a conclusion, rather than simply taking someone’s license from them, for example as I use before, or adjourning something for three or four weeks or a month. Something that makes you think is what I enjoy.

Where would you would rather be if he could be?

At home, doing drawings with my three-year-old granddaughter – she likes to do drawings for me and then I start to draw and she tells me ‘no’, she wants to do it for me.

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