The NT Magistrates Court rolled into Yuendumu for its bi-monthly visit late last week. Leading the 4 wheel-driven caravan was Stipendiary Magistrate John Birch, with an assortment of defence lawyers, police prosecutors and staff from the Central Australian Aboriginal Family Legal service in tow. Add the eight members of the Yuendumu Mediation and Justice Group, local and regional NT Police and their ACPO (Aboriginal Community Police Officers) offsiders, probation officers and Court staff, defendants, family members and curious rubber-neckers and it was the best and biggest show to hit town all month.

Alice Springs-based Stipendiary Magistrate John Birch called us all to order just after 10 am in the run-down chambers of the now defunct Yuendumu Community Government Council. Her Royal Highness Elizabeth II smiled wanly from the wall over Magistrate Birch’s shoulder. A layer of red dust lies on any undisturbed surface.

Small groups of defendants and their family members gather under the meagre shade of straggly trees and shuffle forward to tell their story to the Aboriginal legal aid lawyers sitting with their piles of files at two card tables in the sun, working through their lists and on a good sunburn for their troubles. The lawyers and their clients have no private facilities and their all-too-brief instructions are taken hurriedly and in the full glare of the public and a hot sun beating down from a cloudless sky hazed by recent duststorms. A small pack of dogs pace restlessly outside the door to the Court, sniffing the legs of all who pass, waiting for their owners to emerge.

Magistrate Birch pushes the Court along at a steady pace unusual to any casual observer of NT Courts – no cuppa-tea breaks, no two-hour-long lunches – just a quick break early in the afternoon so that everyone can go outside for a smoke, a cuppa tea and a quick bite, then back to the fray.

And the list for the two days is long – 74 defendants facing a total of 252 charges – an average of almost 3.5 per defendant. The raw totals include 76 alcohol-related charges, 93 relating to use of a motor-vehicle, 39 charges (at least) arising from two days of September rioting at the nearby township of Willowra and a grab-bag of 44 assorted criminal charges.

The high number of alcohol-related matters is attributed, in part, to the success of the Yuendumu Magpies at the Central Australian Football League’s Grand Final in Alice Springs in late September and the temptation by their loyal fans to bring a few drinks home to celebrate a glorious victory. And these figures are bloated by the common practice of the NT Police known as ‘charging-up’.

“Charging-up” is typically used in relation to liquor and vehicle offences and ensures that if the facts fail on one charge, the police are sure to be able to fit the facts to another backup charge. With liquor-related offences most defendants were charged with the trifecta available to police under s. 75 of the NT’s Liquor Act of “bring liquor into”, “possess liquor” and “consume liquor” in a restricted area. Of particular note with this trifecta is that the charge of “bring liquor into a restricted area”, which is commonly viewed as equivalent to “grog-running” – when a guilty plea is entered, “bring liquor” is the charge of choice to put to the Court – with the others usually being withdrawn by the prosecution.

Similar “charging-up” occurs with vehicle-related offenses, where again a trifecta of “drive unlicensed”, “drive unregistered” and “drive uninsured” are commonly listed against a defendant, with two of the three being withdrawn on entry of a guilty plea. The other biggie out here is “drive disqualified”, and at this sitting 25 people are charged with this offence. All of them are likely to add to the gross over-representation of Aboriginal people in the NT prison population – where the 30% of the general population that is Aboriginal accounts for over 80% of the prison population.

The penalty in the NT for driving disqualified is undoubtedly harsh – section 31 of the NT’s Traffic Act requires 12 months prison time for a first offence. This is at substantial odds with penalties in other Australian jurisdictions – where, while recognising the seriousness of driving while disqualified, more commonly fines and periods of further disqualifications are used as a deterrent. On the basis of this one session of Yuendumu court alone, if all of the 25 take a plea of guilty or are found guilty by the Court, a lot of them will end up in Alice Springs prison for a long time and for what is essentially a victimless crime.

Crikey asked Magistrate Birch about his views on the high number of vehicle-related charges.

John Birch: I think the number of people being charged with a variety of offences has increased because now there are more police officers as a result of the (Federal) intervention and a broad section of communities that didn’t have police before, and hence, people who might have been driving unlicensed or driving disqualified wouldn’t have been detected in the past and they are being now.

Its very problematic, the issue of the use of motor vehicles out bush, we all rely very heavily on cars, but there just aren’t the facilities for people to undertake driving programs, to do the drink-driving course, to even have the wherewithal to apply for a drivers license. Perhaps if we looked at having something in the communities that encouraged people to get their drivers license in the first place and to place some value on it, then we might no see this high rate of traffic-type offending.

And of course people driving whilst disqualified is a serious offense, and often its in the combination of consuming alcohol, which more often than not leads people off to periods of imprisonment, and, in the sober light of day it is, when you think about it, an offense that common sense would just lead you away from.

Crikey: And findings of guilty in relation to “drive unregistered”, and its companion charge of “drive uninsured” can have particularly serious consequences that people may not be aware of…

John Birch: And even if they are aware of it (many Aboriginal people) may not properly understand it. And of course the penalties for driving a car uninsured are extremely high here in the Northern Territory. It’s over $500 for a first offence and over $1,000 for a second time, and we’ve already talked about people’s capacity to pay fines, and for someone to have to pay a fine of over $1,000 – it is a lot of money – it’s a lot of money whether you live in Sydney or live at Yuendumu. It can cause quite a lot a hardship for people.

Tomorrow – Court Day in Yuendumu – Part 2 – the Community Court sits.