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Behind the bench

Behind the bench
The Ashburton District Court

It’s our legal theatre, a stage where stories converge, justice unfolds and lives are shaped. The Ashburton Guardian takes a look inside Ashburton’s court.

A Christchurch lawyer bounces about the court like a five-year-old on a sugar high. Black suit, white shirt, with a red tie that complements his light red hair.

He greets colleagues jovially and says he’s a “box of fluffy ducks”.

“Everyone is too serious this morning,” he says.

And he’s right. Everyone is seriously busy. It's half an hour before Ashburton’s District Court is due to sit on what will be another bustling criminal list day, which is where dozens of cases can be heard in a single session.

Security officers in crisp black and white uniforms guide people through the metal detector one at a time, reminding them to take keys and wallets out of their pockets.

Like airport security, every beep from the scanner means standing with arms out for a follow-up check with a handheld detector where bags are inspected for weapons, knives, and other items. Those items, dare I say it, includes a small key ring-sized camping penknife. I know all about that after my small Swiss Army utility knife – a freebie for subscribing to a tramping magazine – set off the security beep about a month ago, convincing me to take it off my key ring to avoid further embarrassment and to report on the news, rather than be it.

Most people don’t get caught out and are smart enough to leave illegal substances and weapons at home, but not all. In 2021, Ashburton District Court security officers confiscated cannabis, and three knuckle dusters, which are small hand-held weapons that fit over the knuckles to enhance the force of a punch.

On this day, there’s a steady stream of people who, having run the security gauntlet, check in with a court registrar. Several are assigned a duty lawyer and ushered to a private space for a quick discussion about their case.

Police prosecutor Stuart Whyte is in pressed police blues, sergeant stripes on his epaulettes. He takes over the front bench as case file after case file comes out of a navy long-haul suitcase on wheels.

He stacks the files strategically in an imposing pile across three desks. About 30 files, one for all but two of the people down on the court list for today.

The seat at the fourth oak-like desk is soon taken by a Ministry of Social Development prosecutor, who’s here for two people facing benefit fraud charges.

Court staff flit in and out the courtroom. Two probation officers, a restorative justice representative, and a local journalist plug in their computers.

Lawyers take seats or stand and chat. There are more lawyers than the four desks behind the prosecution bench that the court can accommodate. Some settle in the public gallery to wait their turn. Others are in and out the courtroom as they help out as duty lawyers.

Conversation in the courtroom hums. Cases are discussed, some agreements are struck with the prosecution. But it’s not all work.

Snippets of a weekend tramp float from the corner. A compliment about a jacket turns into a discussion about the ethics of buying cheap clothes from China, and that morphs into groans about the cost of living.

At one minute past 10, the last duty lawyer is back in court. A court official walks in to announce the entrance of the judge.

“Kia rite mō te kaiwhakawā o te Kōti-ā-Rohe, e tū koa. Silence. All stand for his honour the judge.”

The hum stops. Everyone stands. Judge Stephen O’Driscoll covers the short distance between the door and the elevated bench in a few strides and gives a curt nod.

“Kua tūwhera tēnei hui a te Kōti-ā-Rōhe ki te Hakatere. This sitting of the Ashburton District Court is now open,” the official says.

First up from the court holding cell is a man dressed head-to-toe in black. He was arrested for not engaging in an intensive supervision sentence and hopes to get out on bail today.

A discussion about his case and his fitness to stand trial, the details of which were suppressed, gets complicated. Police oppose his bail address, with the case adjourned.

The burly man isn’t happy. "I thought I was going to get out today." He thinks better of saying any more, the restraint showing. He appears again, briefly, later in the day but his lawyer withdraws the bail application, and the man goes back to jail until his next court date in three weeks.

The charges in front of Judge O’Driscoll include family violence, assault of a police officer, driving charges and several cases of assault, with various items listed as weapons ranging from a broom to a spade and scissors.

Of the day’s 35 cases, the accused ages range from 18 to 71. Their occupations vary from unemployed to labourer to manager and engineer and just six are women.

A grey-haired man in a black suit pleads guilty to assaulting a constable in Ashburton. His case is adjourned to allow him to make a suitable donation to a charity in lieu of reparation before sentencing.

He appears later that morning with a receipt for the donation and is given a 12-month supervision sentence.

The judge issues warrants for arrests for four men in a fast-paced minute or two after they fail to appear. Another 32-year-old man is more fortunate. Believed to be squatting in an abandoned house or sleeping in a hedge, he was excused from appearing in court. His lawyer tells the judge he’d emailed the man to let him know that his court date had been brought forward. But he didn’t think the man could afford a phone account or access his emails, so he's due back in court next month.

A former Mongrel Mob member, dressed in black, is up for sentencing on charges of possessing firearms and ammunition.

An attempt to save his ex-partner from the weapons charges when their home was searched by police last October backfired. They both claimed possession and were charged jointly for the offence, while the man’s ex-partner was also charged and later convicted of selling cannabis. The ex-gang member is given a community work sentence of 150 hours.

The non-attendance of a young man in court is excused because it was his first day at a new job. He faces charges of threatening behaviour, taking a vehicle for his own use, and driving while forbidden.

His lawyer told the court that the man had developmental issues, which started with oxygen deprivation at birth. He asks for the case to be remanded to assess if the man was fit to stand trial.

Finally, a solo mum, who appeared by video link, changes her not-guilty plea to guilty for receiving and using a stolen bank card. She was ordered to repay $726.05 but then – five hours after the list day began – that was it. Court done, adjourned for the day. Only a couple of case files remained in front of the prosecutor, those files waiting to be orderly placed back into the open maw of the suitcase.

And as everyone departed, you could almost hear the 85-year-old courtroom exhale. Once again it stood silent, having carried the weight of the deliberations within its sacred confines for another day.

By Sharon Davis