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Shepparton Koori Court

May 13, 2010

Sunday, 9 May 2010, Rockhampton completed on Thursday, 13 May 2010 in the Tilt-train from Rockhampton to Brisbane


Yesterday evening I arrived in Rockhampton Queensland, where I will attend the Murri court sitting day on Wednesday in the Magistrates’ court here. It feels great to be in a tropical area again. I love the nurturing warm energy of the atmosphere. My program has been overcrowded. Now I have two days to write and prepare. I have a hotel room with open door to the quiet garden with swimming pool. I don’t use the airco. The restaurant here is good and has a nice terrace. I took a grilled baramundi, fish of the day. I have a lot to do here: preparing my presentation held on the Non-Adversarial Justice conference last week for publication on the website of the Australasian Institute for Judicial Administration, the organization that organized the conference. Further I need to write updates for my blog: experiences in the Koori court in Shepparton and the conference in Melbourne. I work in my room, table before the open door to the garden. Every time when I look up from my computer I see the strong green grass, inviting me to do pentjak silat exercises in the morning and the evening.

Shepparton Koori Court

On Thursday 29 April I took a flight to Melbourne. At the airport I rented a car and drove to Shepparton, about 200 km north from Melbourne. I stayed in a friendly motel there in the city centre. Judges and Magistrates are traveling officers here. Their bases are in the capital and they travel with their staff to remote areas in order to do their sentencing work throughout the country. I think that this system makes judicial officers more flexible. They experience more explicitly cultural differences in different areas. Much more than in The Netherlands judicial officers will be challenged to decision making in a way that appears to be appropriate and effective in the specific area. Especially for indigenous sentencing this will be the case as there are about 250 different Aboriginal cultures throughout Australia, each having a different language. For this reasons many different forms of indigenous sentencing are developed.

The Koori Court in Shepparton is much more “organized” than the Nunga Court in Pt Adelaide. The approach is much more formal. Magistrate Gerard Bryant is a well-organized man. I meet the Elders Aunty Kelly and Uncle Des Morgan and Koori Court Officer Maxwell Atkinson. There is a Court social worker working in the Magistrate’s Court who can deliberately be consulted by people who came in contact with the Court. Before the court sitting Magistrate Bryant took half an hour to discuss the matters with the Elders, and with the Court Social Worker.

Magistrate Bryant started every case with an expression of respect for the traditional owners of the land, calling the names of the people as well. It is even more, longer than I write here. At first I perceived this ritual as a bit strange. I wondered if this would be not more than a formality. I dislike people saying things that they do not mean and I have a bit an allergic reaction to such things. I had heard this ritual as well in Port Adelaide when the Lord Mayor started his speech at Peggy Hora’s reception. Since then I learned more about this ritual. The Non-Adversarial Justice conference in Melbourne was opened with a beautiful Aboriginal ritual, thoroughly performed by an Aboriginal woman. The president of the AIJA, when opening the conference asked attention for her opening ritual. After doing that and being thanked for that she left the conference. Then the conference program started. Many presenters started their presentation with this ritual as well. Now I feel quite different about this. I feel that it has a very deep meaning. It honors the people whose land in fact has been stolen by the Western immigrants, whose children are taken away from them for over 100 years. The ritual respects as well the way the Aboriginal people respect the Earth in so much deeper sense than we, Western people do that. I realize that this ritual helps healing deep wounds that the Western culture has brought to the Aboriginal culture, every time that it is expressed. On the conference I heard that similar rituals are common in New Zealand and Canada as well. I have spoken presenters who said to love this ritual and to begin all of their speeches with it. It makes them kind of happy to begin their speech with it.

Further about the Koori Court: The Courtroom is especially for Koori Court sittings. The walls are all decorated with Aboriginal art work. In the left backside corner stand three flags, the Australian flag in front, behind first the Aboriginal flag and then the Torres Street Islander flag. The Court session is held around an oval table. Everyone sits on the same level. Behind the table at the long side the Magistrate and two Elders are sitting, at the small ends a Corrections officer and a Koori Court officer were sitting. Opposite of the Magistrate and the Elders sat the offender, the defense lawyer, and the police prosecutor. In the Courtroom are present as well representatives of healthcare services, the Court social worker and family and friends of the offender if the defender brings them. The victim is not present or represented in the Koori Court system.

In fact in all cases of this Koori Court sitting alcohol and substance abuse was at stake at the offender. The cases can take about one hour. Some do less. Only those cases are brought for the Koori Court in which the offence can lead to incarceration. The Koori Court is there to try to prevent incarceration through probation and intensive corrections orders. If the Court order is breached incarceration will follow. I start to understand a bit about how the system works in this country. However I do not fully understand the system yet.

After having seen a number of the cases I discover Magistrate Bryant’s policy. He brings the case up, then, in a subtle way he transfers the interaction to the Elders who speak with the offender. Then, when the Elders have reached what they can with the offender, he takes over the case and makes his decision. It is impressing to see and experience what happens in the interaction between the Elders and the offender. They are supportive and hold the offender responsible at the same time. More than once the interaction brought the offender to tears. The approach of the Elders is full of – I cannot express better – Wisdom and Love. The power of the Elders is to bring the offender back on the right path through their Wisdom and deep Loving approach. They open the heart of the offender. This approach gets a follow up in the community of the offender through detox and trainings programs, supported by social workers, community work, etc. Many of the cases will be suspended so that the offender can prevent custody. The laws in Victoria prescribe a custody sentence in the second case of drink driving. The Magistrate’s obligation to sentence custody opens opportunities to suspend the case and put the offender this way under Under pressure to comply with intensive correction orders, detox, training, etc. Within the communities there are more and more initiatives to support those people. Magistrate Bryant tells me that the Koori Court leads to a substantial decrease of recidivism.

Uncle Des Morgan brought a young single mother with two kids to tears through asking her on a good moment in a very sympathetic way: “What are you doing with your life? You need to be there for your kids. And you risk getting incarcerated. You are such a nice woman. Why? What are you doing?” And Aunty Kelly added on a right moment: ” Come Mary (I took another name for her), change your life. Do what is good for you, and for your children.” Then a smile appeared on Mary’s face. She felt seen and respected as a human being. This was healing her. Then the Magistrate took it over. He warns her: “This is your last chance you get from me, Mary. You have to comply with a detox and rehabilitation program. I suspend the case for 4 weeks in order to see how you are going.” He applies the Problem Solving Court approach in this case. This implies that he will monitor her performance in the detox- and training program.

An offender, a man with mental health problems, alcohol and drug abuse, and denial of his problems – I call him John – behaving completely as a victim, through the approach of the Elders become communicative. I saw him coming to life again. When that happened appointments could be made for treatment for alcohol and psychological dysfunction. John had moved to Melbourne. The Court social worker and the Corrections officer, both present at the Court session, coordinate how the treatment will be effected. The case is suspended for 6 weeks. What the Elders are doing is pure empowerment. It is respectful. They communicate to the soul, to the heart. They communicate on a so much deeper level of human being then we are accustomed to do, the level of our brain. The offenders respect and accept the person fully as they are, and from there support them to start again, saying: “You are the only one who can do it. We can’t do it for you. You can have support, but you have to do it.” In some cases the Elders spoke about apology with the offender as well.

A woman, 29 years old, with an alcohol problem, having 7 children comes in the Koori court for 6 offences: drink driving, traffic in a violent relationship is in transitional housing for a substantial time already. Her 7 children stay with her wherever she is. She has been in jail already for a while. Uncle Des Morgan started to speak to her. I saw her looking down, deeper and deeper, while her spoke on. Then she burst into tears. He spoke about her children, and about “all of us Aborigines”. Then she came back in contact again. A few minutes uncle and she had a deep intimate conversation about her life, and how she could live it. He opened a door in her to go to health services for alcohol treatment and anger management. The judge suspended the case, warning her that after any other wrongdoing she would be put in custody.

Seven cases were done during this day. Halfway we had lunch together, Magistrate George Bryant, the Elders, and the Koori Court coordinator. It was great having lunch together after the intense sitting, and to hear about how the Magistrate, and the Elders experience the Koori Court. Magistrate Bryant is very positive, especially about the substantial reduction of recidivism. This is the main benefit of the system for him. For the Elders it is an important system that helps bridging the intercultural gap. And the system enables them to help members of their people in a very concrete and effective way. I gave them my conflict model. I see that the Aboriginal people immediately understand it. In fact I use the model often a bit as my business card.

The next days I drove back to Melbourne through the old goldmine district. I had some quiet and nice days until I arrived in Melbourne on Sunday-evening 2 May. From that moment I needed to complete my presentation, to be held on 5 May.

Australia, 25 April – 2 May 2010

May 2, 2010

Welcome on my blog for my study trip to Australia about Non-Adversarial Justice and Indigenous Sentencing Courts.

From 4 to 7 May I will attend the Non-Adversarial Justice conference in Melbourne. On 5 May I will present there the matrix that I’ve developed in co-operation with Human Synergistics, Plymouth MI, USA ( This matrix pictures the ‘sustainability rate’ of different court- or conflict resolution systems: to what extent does a court system, or conflict resolution method, support sustainability in the society or is the system counter-productive to that striving. Further I will visit a number of Indigenous Sentencing Courts in different states of Australia. This court system is developing more and more in the last decennium in approximately all states of Australia. I am very interested in intercultural justice. I think that in a more and more multicultural society intercultural forms of justice will become more and more important.

In Sydney, where my plane arrived at 5.10am the sky was not very welcoming. It was grey and raining. Quite different from the excellent weather we had in The Netherlands. It was hard to leave my apartment in Utrecht on a moment that my garden has its most beautiful time of the year. But I feel the energy of getting back in that amazing young and dynamic country that Australia is. The sun broke through and the weather became great. I flew over red colored Australian Outback again. I love this country! I am happy being back again here, and see friends again, who I’ve met during my sabbatical period or on conferences. I had luck that all flights went on schedule again after the problems of the volcano eruption in Iceland. It was presumably the first day that most flights were on schedule again. I had a great flight. I sat next to very inspiring people and I feel in top condition.

In Adelaide I stay in the apartment of judge Peggy Fulton Hora (ret.) from California USA. Peggy is an inspiring woman. For many years she has been a judge in a non-adversarial drug treatment court in California USA. I met her in 2008 on a conference in Puerto Rico. Last year, when she made a holiday trip through The Netherlands and Belgium, I organized a seminar for the judiciary, where she gave a reading about Drug Courts and Problem Solving Courts. Peggy stays for three months in Adelaide as advisor of the government of South Australia. She offered me a room in her apartment in the city center if I wanted to visit a Nunga Court (indigenous sentencing court in South Australia). Being there Peggy told me more about the character of her residence in Adelaide. I did no idea what she was doing exactly. I’m impressed when she explains this. Peggy stays in Adelaide as “Thinker in Residence” in order to advise the government of South Australia about its justice system. South Australia wants to be(come) a modern and advanced state in all aspects. To that aim the state invites experts from all over the world to stay during some months in Adelaide as “thinker in residence”. Every time another area or aspect is scrutinized. The task of the “thinker” is to inspire the state, and the people working in the sector or area concerned.
What a great idea to have such a system working I a country! (Again a proof: Australia is amazing inventive.)

One of the first things Peggy did when I came in was giving me my official invitation for her good-bye reception in Town Hall on on 28 April 2010, when Peggy’s residence comes to an end. She has lots of interviews for radio, TV and newspapers. Her agenda is overcrowded. She loves to do this work, which is a crown on her judicial career. I heard that she will be invited to come again in Adelaide to do continue her work.

On Sunday evening, the day of my arrival, Peggy was were invited for dinner with judge Michael Boylen, and his wife Deborah Morgen and their two sons. Peggy had arranged that I could come as well. We got an excellent dinner and we had a very interesting and dynamic conversation. All 6 of us are practicing lawyers, from all over the world. So, you can imagine!

On Monday (26 April) I made a trip with Liesbeth, and her husband John, who live here since 30 years already. Liesbeth is daughter a woman, who I call my “spiritual mother”. We drove to the mountains behind Adelaide (Mt Lofty), drank coffee and made walk there. We had a very interesting exchange about the political situation in Australia, in the Netherlands and in the world. After that I tried to visit an Aboriginal center close to Peggy’s apartment. However, I was so tired that I hardly could keep me upright. I took ½ hour sleep and was quite fit again. Then Peggy and I took dinner in a restaurant together.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010, I had a visit on my program of the Nunga Court in Port Adelaide. This court is part of the local Magistrate’s Court. So many cases were traffic offences and less serious other offences. Nunga Court coordinator of South Australia, Sarah Alpers, had promised to pick me up at Peggy’s apartment. Together we drove to the Magistrate’s court in Port Adelaide. Sarah brought me in a special Nunga Court office room, where I met two Nunga Court officers, one Aboriginal Elder, a police officer, and some other officials. Magistrate Mrs Little came in as well for a moment to meet me. It was a very informal ambiance. We had a coffee together before the sitting would start.

At home I had read in many reports about indigenous sentencing how courtrooms were set up and specially decorated for indigenous sentencing. Sometimes sittings are even held in other buildings than the courthouse. Always the rooms are decorated with Aboriginal artwork or symbols. The sessions are most often informal and sitting around a table or in a circle. I knew that South Australia was the first state in Australia, which had an indigenous sentencing court. So, I wondered how it would be here in Port Adelaide.

The Nunga Court appeared to be held in a normal Magistrate’s courtroom in which some changes were made in order to make it more appropriate for a Nunga court sitting. The lookout was very simple, a bit provisional. The walls were bare and empty, except an ordinary clock and some small tributes and a pretty big Aboriginal painting that hung a bit lost in the emptiness of the walls.

The courtroom has a high bench, behind which the Magistrate normally sits, and before the bench a big two-level bar-table, the bench-side of the table over a foot higher then the front-side of it.

In the middle of the high bench stood, poles-crossed, toy-format flags of the Aboriginal people and Torres Street Islander people. An Australian flag lacked.

So, the changes made to make the courtroom appropriate for the Nunga Court sitting were simple and rudimental. Obviously outer look had not got high priority. Contrarily the enthusiasm of the people involved for the Nunga Court was very inspiring. Later that day I heard that Nunga Courts in South Australia suffer under a substantial lack of funding. (Aboriginal Elders earn not more than $50 for a sitting day, inclusive their preparation and the after work that they have.
Having heard this I understand why the courtroom was poorly dressed up.

The Magistrate, the Elder and a Nunga Court assistant sat at the upper level side of the bar table; the police-officer, the offender and the defense lawyer sat at the lower side. Present were as well two members of the Aboriginal Sobriety Group, both Aboriginal. They were not sitting at the bar table.

It was a pity that there were not many cases that day. I could not hear well what was said and what was going on during the sessions. I needed to get accustomed to the Australian dialect. Further the interventions from the Elders were pretty few in the cases. May be the reason was that one of the Elders just had heard that he has a terminal state of cancer. Over all: this was not a sitting day on which I could really learn how indigenous sentencing works, and what the advancements of the system are. A strong Elder-intervention was when “Granny” spoke seriously to a marihuana addicted young mother to make clear that she should seek help to get off her addiction in order to take good care for her children. Magistrate Little and Sarah Alpers advised me strongly to attend a Koori Court sitting in Victoria. Victoria is much more focused on advancing indigenous sentencing and gives much more funding for the system.

The most inspiring memories of my Nunga Court experience I keep from what happened after the sitting. A simple but very nice walking lunch was served in the courtroom. All “Grannies” (Elders and Respected persons who serve in this Nunga Court) were invited. At once I sat in the middle of a vast group of Aboriginal Elders and respected persons. A tableau was made on which all nameplates of all the “Grannies” who serve at the Port Adelaide Nunga Court, which was intended to hang on the wall in the courtroom. Magistrate Little, who knew about the Grandpa’s cancer problem, had decided to hand the tableau to him, and to thank him especially for his work for the Nunga Court through many years. After that the Grandpa took the word and informed everybody about his health situation. After he had done that he left the meeting unobvious. Magistrate Little told me afterwards: “If he had known before that I would thank him especially, he never would have come here.” She was happy that she had been able to set this man in the light. The whole happening felt as a warm bath.
That is the main thing that I keep with me from this Nunga Court sitting: The people here are very open hearted, Aboriginal people and Western people as well.

I had a great opportunity to make intense contact with many wise Aboriginal people. Under them was a shaman, Major Sumner ( who belongs to the Ngarrindjeri community. He leads traditional Aboriginal ceremonies and tries to bring his people more in contact with their Aboriginal roots.

He told me about an exchange program through which he had worked together with Canadian Aborigines. There he had visited an Indigenous jail, where Aboriginal Elders bring prisoners in contact with their traditional language and their cultural traditions and roots. The effect of this treatment must be amazing. Convicts feel strongly empowered and seem to get a new and positive sense of their life again, while in custody. I understood that in New South Wales a similar initiative would be set up. Major Sumner wants to set up such a project in South Australia as well.

It is very inspiring for me to hear this! I hope to find out more about this during the conference next week. Major Sumner invited me to attend a traditional Aboriginal ceremony with traditional body-paint, dance, music and rituals to be held on 1 May. It is a pity that the schedule of my study trip does not permit me to go there. Hopefully I can attend another time.

One basic impression stands upright in my mind after this Nunga Court experience: The Aboriginal Elders appreciate highly that the Nunga Court system gives them an opportunity to work together with the Western justice system for a better world, and for a better future for their people. Without these courts their opportunities to strive for a better world are considerably less.

Elders and Respected Persons in Aboriginal communities have a longing to work for the benefit of their people. They experience this as their life task. Indigenous sentencing courts open an important opportunity for them to make their longing come true and to give their life task ‘hands and feet’.

Thinking further about this I realize that before the Western immigrants settled in Australia the Elders were responsible for the benefit of their people. The Western immigrants and the Western justice system have taken this responsibility out of their hands, more or less completely. The indigenous Elders however kept their longing and their traditional life task, notwithstanding that they in fact had no means anymore to give body to their longing and life task effectively. The indigenous sentencing court system gives them tools and means back to make their longing come true, and to give body to their life tasks.

It is my impression that the importance of this beneficial effect: restoration of powers and authority of Elders that they traditionally had in their communities cannot be underestimated.

I think that the formation of indigenous sentencing courts is a basic step of respect from the Western culture towards the Aboriginal people: The Western culture has and had complete supremacy over Aboriginal people in Australia.

Through the introduction of indigenous sentencing courts the Western culture makes a step back. It gives up a number of traditional standards of the Western justice system in order to give room for Aboriginal cultural influence. This step back honors the Aboriginal people and Aboriginal values. In fact a cultural merge takes place within the Western justice system. It works differently through the influence of Aboriginal traditional values. The result of this cultural merge seems to be a considerable reduction of recidivism. The merge leads to synergy.

From Western point of view indigenous sentencing means: a release of something (judicial formalities) and openness for other influences in order to get a better final result.

From Aboriginal point of view indigenous sentencing means: (a relief of) getting back a longtime lost cultural essence, and a deep satisfaction about that.

From intercultural observation the system of indigenous sentencing can be seen as a pillar of a bridge that can bridges the gap between the cultures. The intercultural merged system itself is the pillar. The people working in the system make the bridge, every time when they make advancements through working together in a synergetic way. The system fosters the synergy.

It is interesting truth that (justice) systems have the potential to be a basis for affecting, or healing (intercultural) relationships. In fact justice systems can foster either breach of relationships or healing of relationships.

After the “Nunga Court happening” Sarah Alpers brought me home in Peggy’s apartment. It was 3:00pm. I went to the South Australian museum, which has a nice collection about the Aboriginal culture. The Lonely Planet writes about this museum as being “absorbing”. True! I became incredibly tired as soon as I was there. I sat down on a bench nearly sleeping, not able to let in anything of the information.

Wednesday 28 April: “organizing day” not very interesting to tell about, except Peggy’s reception in Town Hall is from 6:00 to 7:00pm. This was a great happening. Everyone was looking perfectly, all man in suit with tie. Australians are pretty conservative on this point. Many prominent persons were present, including the prime minister of South Australia. Again was Peggy again extendedly on TV, radio and in newspapers. Peggy has become a respected and well-known person here. I am happy about that. She earns this respect and makes that true. It is an honor for me to stay in her apartment, and to be a friend of her.

April 17, 2010