Coffs Harbour?s court facilities and staffing resources are inadequate.
Coffs Harbour?s court facilities and staffing resources are inadequate.

Everyone gets a fair go

By MEL MARTIN

IT DIDN'T take long for Coffs Harbour's new magistrate, Judith Fleming, to work out that our court facilities leave a lot to be desired.

But whether talking about these inadequacies, handing down a sentence, or life in general, it seems balance is the key.

"The workload in local court has grown incredibly, and staffing levels and facilities are not adequate to operate in," she said.

Ms Fleming, who alternates between Coffs Harbour, Macks-ville, and Bellingen courts, says disabled access is difficult and Coffs has no proper interview rooms, while at Macksville court, there is nowhere for people to wait but outside.

While she can't change those issues Ms Fleming is quick to praise the people who cope with them.

"We just have to work within what we're given. But I'd have to give a pat on the back of staff and local practitioners who do the best they can despite the lack of facilities."

This includes other shortcomings, with options available in the city not available in the country.

"It's frustrating if you see someone who's crying out for rehabilitation that's not available. For example, there is no weekend periodic detention for females in this area," she said.

"But in a country court you have control on how things run, there is a direct link between yourself and your work."

After 10 years as a magistrate in both Sydney and regional areas, experience as a defence lawyer and prosecutor, as well as work as a social worker with child abuse victims, Ms Fleming has developed an insight into society.

"I have great faith in the human spirit. When I was a criminal lawyer, part of my job was to try to find the good in clients so we could explain the bad against the good. And there is good in everybody.

"People are not born bad. Things happened in their lives to send them down a path. "So I have to balance to what extent they need rehabilitation, to what extent they need punishment, and to what extent I have to send a message to the rest of the community that such behaviour is not permissible, then weigh up all those things and decide on a penalty."

Other factors also come into it, including financial circumstances and the way the crime was committed.

But it's not easy to switch off at the end of the day.

"You see the raw side of people's lives. I'm often moved by people's tragedies," Ms Fleming said.

"Over time, it builds up and you develop coping mechanisms to not let it get you down because you have to come back and do it all again the next day."

For Ms Fleming, exercise is the best medicine, and she's a keen swimmer and walker ? she walked 800 kilometres on the Camino, a pilgrim walk in Spain, which runs from France to Santiago.

But has that experience helped her develop a tough character?

"No, I think I'm just mad!" she said.



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