People do stupid things, but it’s those who do them repeatedly who can expect jail time, according to new Yass magistrate Mark Richardson.
The married father of five took over the Goulburn/Yass court circuit in January this year.
He said his workload here had so far been “fairly unremarkable” apart from potential coronial inquiries into the January bushfires and the Yass High School fire.
Most cases involved drink driving, domestic violence, break and enters or sex offences.
“So my impression of Yass at the moment is that… criminal activity is fairly well contained, probably due to the approach taken by police and the community to crime,” he told the Tribune.
He’s worked as a magistrate in Burwood in Sydney, as well as country towns such as Moree, Inverell and Armidale in northern NSW.
The biggest difference was that Yass had less Aboriginal offenders going through the courts but far more truck offenders.
“I don’t take kindly to drivers who are caught driving under the influence of amphetamines. I think driving a b-double with a 40-tonne load on it under the influence of amphetamines is a very serious offence - and it should be punished appropriately.”
He was also keen to crack down on trucking companies that consistently failed to maintain diaries, overload their trucks, override speed-limiting devices or encouraged inadequate rest periods.
“They definitely shouldn’t be driving on a highway, here or anywhere else in Australia. And I do think that’s just what the public would expect – you are entitled to drive on the Hume Highway without the fear of a truck driven by a lunatic who’s full of hooch coming around the corner and wiping you out – you’re dead if they do…
“As a coroner I do a lot of… road accidents and very few people survive major truck accidents.”
But he does feel first-time offenders generally deserve some leniency if their offence is not significant.
“My attitude to criminal law is that… you should give to people the benefit of the court’s leniency when they’ve committed only one offence and it’s not terribly significant - such as a minor driving offence or an assault that doesn’t involve using a weapon of any kind.
“We all make mistakes, particularly young people. A lot of young people get charged with crimes and when you ask them whether they understand what they did was a crime, they often say no.
“People do stupid things. I think the courts generally take the view they should try and give people as much help and support as they need to lead a lawful life and be a part of the community in a responsible way.
“But all of us have a view at the end of the day, that if the crime is particularly serious – even if it is their first offence - they should be staring at a jail sentence. And that is, I imagine, what the community would expect.”
Richardson has worked as chief executive officer of the NSW Law Society, director of NSW Legal Aid, and on the Law Reform Commission. But it’s his work as a magistrate he finds most satisfying.
“In contrast to what I used to do… this is a much more satisfying job because it has an immediacy about it. I had no idea today when I came to court what I was going to do, so it’s unpredictable in that sense, and you are continuously being challenged day by day.
The breadth of work that comes with coronial, criminal and family law was challenging.
“The real challenge is to try and make a difference to people’s lives. In the … child protection sphere and family law sphere, the primary purpose is to try and keep families together but inevitably you do have to deal with family breakdowns and situations where families can’t look after their children and take appropriate steps to protect the children.
“In criminal cases you are trying to balance the expectations of the community, which is that crime be dealt with fairly and firmly, and the needs of the people appearing before the court.
“So the challenge is trying to get it right. Much of the decision-making you undertake, while you have to adhere to the law, … [comes down to] common sense and life experience.
“I get the facts, look at the law, evaluate the evidence and make a decision.”