The revolutionary Koori County Court in Victoria — the only higher court of its kind in Australia — is throwing open its doors to the public for a special event as it notches up a decade of operations.
The open day, during Law Week this month, comes as judges from New South Wales are looking at the Victorian Koori County model, the equivalent of the District Court in other jurisdictions.
In an interview with NIT this week, Koori County Court judge-in-charge Paul Grant said the court, which utilises the wisdom of elders, had brought about big changes in the Victorian court system.
Judge Grant said more than 100 elders now worked alongside judges and court workers helping to put offenders on the right track.
Many Koori and Aboriginal people now also worked in the Victorian court system, he said.
Judge Grant said while there were currently no Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander judges in Victoria, they were “very keen” to have them and did have two Indigenous magistrates.
The court is inviting people to watch mock a mock sentencing during Law Week, which runs from May 14-20.
“One of the things we are keen for people to do when they see the Koori Court is to see there is nothing to be afraid of,” Judge Grant said.
“When the court was first set up there were some people who thought this was some sort of separate justice system, some sort of soft option.
“We want people to come along and see how it works in practice and they will see that this is a really good process and it has been a highly beneficial process for a community that has often suffered at the hands of the legal system.
“We think we are making progress. We’ve still got a long way to go but we think the Koori court is a good initiative.”
A history of trail-blazing
While the Koori County Court — which deals with people charged with serious crimes such as robbery, aggravated burglary, serious sexual offences, and serious drug trafficking — has been in operation for 10 years, the Koori system dates back even further in Victoria.
It first began in the Victorian Magistrates Court in 2002 as a response to the first royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody and was developed in consultation with Aboriginal communities.
It expanded into the Children’s Court of Victoria in 2005 before also being introduced to the County Court.
Koori County courts now operate in the La Trobe Valley, Melbourne, Mildura and later this year will begin operations in Shepparton.
Judge Grant said NSW had shown an interest in their county model.
“I do know that NSW is looking at what we are doing in Victoria to see if they can establish their own model for a court in their District Court, but that’s still in the development stage whereas we’ve been going for nearly 10 years, which we’re proud of,” he said.
Instead of coming before a judge sitting at a bench, sentencing talks take place around a table with the judge, the offender, the offender’s lawyer, elders and sometimes family members and support people present.
Judge Grant said because of the seriousness of some of the offences that come before the court, some offenders have to be jailed, but he said elders helped people turn their lives around.
“It’s not only what we hope, but also what we witness,” he said.
“We witness strong responses to the guidance given by the elders.
“We see offenders in a significant number of cases respond to that direction and committing to try and change their lives.”
Law Week events
Courts Open Day: Mock Koori Court: Saturday 19 May 11:30am-12:30pm
Experience the unique style of sentencing in this mock County Koori Court Plea Hearing. County Court of Victoria, courtroom 4.3, 250 William Street, Melbourne.
Courts Open Day: Koori Court information session: Saturday 19 May 10.30-11:15am
Learn about this unique court from our Koori Court unit staff.
Melbourne Magistrates’ Court, 233 William Street.
Deadly connections – Legal health matters to the Aboriginal community: Friday May 18, 1-4:30pm
A community day at the local Aboriginal community gathering place, Barrbunin Beek. Enjoy food, family entertainment, prizes and a live radio broadcast. Talk to people from a range of local health, welfare and legal services.
More information about Law Week in Victoria can be found at: (https://www.everyday-law.org.au/law-week).