Despite all of the chaos that plays out within the courtroom, Wagga’s courthouse operates on a very tight routine; Mondays are for sentencing, Wednesdays are for police matters, and Thursdays are reserved for hearings.
But, for many within the court system, Tuesdays are the most challenging. In Wagga, Tuesdays have become known as ‘AVO days’, a day when upwards of 20 cases of domestic violence will pass through the Local Court in just a few hours.
Many of the cases can get very heated very quickly, particularly when there are children involved, and this Tuesday was no exception.
As the magistrate worked his way through a list of 21 apprehended violence orders, a woman and the father of her grandchild were called to stand barely a metre apart as they argued over an order protecting the woman.
“Your honour, I’m not fighting the AVO, I just want my son off the AVO because she hasn’t got custody of him, that's all,” the man said.
The details of the case were quickly laid out in front of a courtroom full of other families waiting their turn. The child in question had been placed in his grandmother’s care for some time, during which an AVO was ordered to protect them both from the father.
“The baby’s now back with his mum, which is my daughter, and, the thing is, she’s making irrational decisions,” the grandmother explained to the magistrate.
“They’ve been smoking drugs in front of him… I’m just trying to keep him safe, because his father says he’s very abusive.”
With the state’s court system is already overloaded, these matters can take months, and sometimes even years, to get through the courts. Things only become even more frustrating when one of the parties fails to cooperate.
“He’s refused to turn up today, so he’s taking this as a bit of a joke, I think,” another woman told the magistrate when her former partner failed to appear.
When the magistrate asked a court officer to check if the man was outside, the woman said that would be pointless. “He’s already said that he’s not wasting his time coming down here.”
What many unfamiliar to the courts do not realise is that the vast majority of AVOs are not applied for by the victims of domestic violence. It is actually the police who step in and deem an AVO necessary.
Constable Amanda Chapman is one of Wagga’s three domestic violence liaison officers. There were originally only two liaison officers, but incidents of domestic violence across Wagga have been so frequent in recent months that Constable Chapman was asked to join the team about a month ago.
“Any domestic violence incident we go to, if we believe something has happened or we have any kind of fears for a person, then we take out an AVO on their behalf,” Constable Chapman said.
“The victims can get really scared, because they worry that the offender will think it was actually them that took the AVO out, but it’s really the police that do it. We take that responsibility away from them so they don’t have to worry about the repercussions.”
While there is no doubt that the police work with the best interests of the victim in mind, some victims are so caught up in a relationship that they cannot see why they need the protection of an AVO.
This became clear very quickly on Tuesday, when a domestic violence victim began waving and blowing kisses at the man she was being protected from. He appeared before the court by way of video-link from a jail cell, but was just as quick to return her affections via the television screen.
“I’m in love with this man, and nothing’s going to keep us apart,” the woman told the magistrate in a bid to have the AVO altered to allow contact.
“So you want him to be able to contact you by phone?” The magistrate clarified.
The police prosecutor did not seem all that pleased. “I can indicate that police are opposed to this application,” she informed the magistrate. “There have already been at least two breaches of this AVO to date.”
The magistrate granted the couple’s application to make phone calls, but left the jailed man with a stern warning.
“You’re the one that’ll get locked up if this is breached,” the magistrate told him. “It doesn’t matter if she invites you over once you’re out, you still can’t go.”
Warnings like these sound like a mantra on Wagga’s AVO days. Most offenders left with a similar warning from the magistrate: “If you breach that order, you can go to jail for up to two years and pay a fine of up to $5500. If you breach that order with an act of violence, the starting point is jail.”
While the adage “an AVO is only worth the paper it’s written on” is thrown around frequently, Constable Chapman said these stern words of warning were anything but empty.
“People just think ‘oh, the police aren’t going to do anything about it,’ but bloody oath we’ll do something about it,” she said.
“We can alter the AVO, we can change the conditions to make it a lot tighter on them, and the next time they breach it, jail will be pretty much the only option.”
For her, that is what makes the job more rewarding than it is challenging.
“It’s great when you’ve got an AVO granted, because now there’s someone who can’t contact the family that they were hurting the most,” she said. “Now they can live happily knowing that, for the next 12 months or two years, they don’t have to look over their shoulder every five minutes.”