IVO day at Melbourne’s Children’s Court
Here in emotional triage you wait in the corridors so grim-faced you look ill. You don’t smile or glance at the person next to you. You don’t trust anybody except the mother or the daughter holding your hand. You sit in one of the black seats by the yellowy wood walls and watch to see if your lawyer’s coming. The sound system calls out names so loudly the words are distorted. When it’s your name you go to a courtroom and pull open the heavy slab door and let your lawyer state your case. You’re either applying to have an intervention order (IVO) taken out against someone, or arguing that one shouldn’t be taken out against you.
It’s Wednesday. It’s IVO day at Melbourne’s Children’s Court. Here comes Liz Dowling who’s been a solicitor in this jurisdiction for 30 years. She’s got a buggered knee at the moment but still limps along on bright-red high heels to meet her next client. The corridors are packed with people and she’s got eight files under her arm, eight clients to represent between nine o’clock and five. She talks rapidly. Everybody here does. “This is emotional triage, darl. There’s a lot of talking to get through.”
It’s a client she’s not ready to see yet. “Hello, sweetheart,” she replies.
“Liz, I got to speak to you.”
“Not just yet sweetheart. My dance card is full.”
“I will sweetheart, but I’ve got to see others first. Your matter’s been adjourned. You don’t need to be here.”
“It’s been adjourned.”
A boy comes up. “Hey, you know where the coffee is?”
“Good question,” says Liz.
And on she limps to an interview room and drops her files on the graffiti-scratched table. Whatever client follows her in, she calls them sweetheart or darl. No matter how busy she gets, or whether the client is meek and tearful, or snarling wild-eyed because the magistrate says they’re not allowed to go near their child, they’re all sweetheart or darl to her.
This is not the glamour end of the legal system. No barristers in knotty wigs and billowing robes. No journos or TV cameras waiting outside to record the scandal. Family matters are out of bounds to reporters. The sordid details are hidden away in filing cabinets and hard drives.
In the corridors you do glimpse private school uniforms now and then. Mum or dad in expensive clothing, bejewelled fingers and leather shoes with not a scuff on them. But today it’s mostly tattoos and T-shirts. Men haven’t bothered shaving for proceedings. Women with no make-up. A few have bed hair. Liz Dowling loves it. “I’m Irish Catholic. It’s the justice thing with us. People with no voice and no money. The nuns who educated me would probably think, ‘Liz, you should have gone higher.’ But I like it here.”
IVOs cost you no money, which does make them popular. Mostly the cases are serious, but not having to spend anything means spurious complaints slip through and waste the court’s time. When love turns sour an IVO can be useful in shoring up a divorce settlement. They get used in disputes between neighbours. You imagine you’ve got a stalker? Take out an IVO. Even flatmates have been known to try them as part of petty share-house squabbling.
Liz’s colleague, Isabelle Harrison, used to work in the Northern Territory where you have to pay $168 for an IVO if your complaint is not a family violence matter. “That would be something worth doing here in Victoria,” she says. “Stopping the time wasters. Every case where the police are the applicants have merit. Generally a family violence scenario. But the cases that aren’t, why not say, ‘Put your money where your mouth is.’”
When they are serious they can be horribly bitter. Mind you, they’re a flimsy shield, mere paper protection against the hateful or deranged. We saw that on February 12 when 11-year-old Luke Batty was murdered by his father in public view. An IVO was in place against the father at the time. It was meant to help the boy. It didn’t. Couldn’t.
Says Liz Dowling, “In a society like ours, free and open, there’s only so much that can be done to restrict people.”
The sound system calls her to a courtroom. In the crowded corridor the same client pesters her. “Liz!”
“I told you, you don’t have to be here.”
“Because you’ve been adjourned, sweetheart.”
The sound system calls for her again.
“They’ll be calling for me in the grave,” she says.
She bustles through a huddle of protective services officers. A girl has folded herself up on her knees, weeping. Somebody says, “Get the Salvos.”
Inside the courtroom everything slows down for a minute and goes quiet.
Liz takes her place at the bar table, starts her sentence with “Your honour” and off she goes arguing a point with a sort of irritable serenity, talking 50 to the dozen.
A scream from in the corridor manages to get through the soundproofing. There’s a fist fight out there. Police have got some guy handcuffed on the floor.
This is IVO day.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 28, 2014 as "Justice in the genes". Subscribe here.