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Taking a community approach


Cite as: (2007) 81(3) LIJ, p. 27

Magistrate Pauline Spencer believes it is important to develop strong connections between the Magistrates’ Court and its local community.

Pauline Spencer has focused much of her legal career on improving access to justice, and she is hopeful her appointment as a magistrate will encourage other lawyers from the community sector to join her.

Ms Spencer, 37, was executive officer at the Federation of Community Legal Centres (FCLC) from 2004 until appointed a magistrate.

“They are just such a fantastic institution and work so hard and are so unrewarded,” she said of the centres and their employees.

“I think it has been a good boost for them to have me appointed. I hope lots more from community legal centres will follow – that they will feel that this is something that is open to them now – because there are some fantastic [CLC] lawyers who would make great judges and magistrates.”

Ms Spencer grew up in Brisbane and completed a Bachelor of Laws at the University of Queensland in 1992.

She completed articles at Reidy & Tonkin, worked at Estwick & White, and later was an associate partner at Nall Payne Craswell.

“As soon as I started working I found that the law can actually effect huge change or do huge damage to peoples’ lives and I would get very angry when I would see the law effecting damage and very hopeful when I saw the law effecting change,” she said.

“I made the decision to go into the community sector to follow my legal career there because I used to have this saying that I was sick of sticking the bandaids on the gushing wound and really needed to look at some of the more systemic issues.”

In 1997 Ms Spencer moved to Melbourne to take up a position as legal policy officer at the FCLC. She subsequently worked at the Fitzroy Legal Service and the Centre for Social Justice.

Ms Spencer said one of the most reward-ing cases she worked on, which she also described as a “lowlight” in terms of the issue involved, was the Port Phillip Prison Deaths in Custody coronial inquest in 2000.

“It was quite an indictment that so many people died so quickly,” she said.

“In terms of my contribution as a lawyer, being able to work with others to get a finding of contribution against the state and against the private prison company was really important and it changed a lot of prison practice.”

In 2001 Ms Spencer set out to broaden her horizons, moving to Toronto with her partner, and working for more than three years in communications and social justice policy work.

Ms Spencer said her overseas work had contributed to the broad experience she brought to her role as a magistrate.

“Particularly, I understand what a lot of the issues are for the organisations that the Court works with – being non-profits and the challenges they are facing – and I can be realistic about the partnerships we can enter into,” she said.

Appointed in October last year, Ms Spencer is based at the Sunshine Magistrates’ Court.

She said she believed it was important to develop strong connections between the Court and its community, and for magistrates to educate themselves about the challenges faced by various cultural groups within those communities.

She was also conscious of the importance of making eye contact with the defendant or applicant, and acknowledging them.

“Active listening is such an important thing in the Court, so that people actually know that they are getting a fair hearing and that someone is caring about their issues,” she said.

“That can be hard in a really busy court and a busy mention list. You need to keep the cases coming through but you need to ensure that everyone is treated humanely and justly.”

Working on community boards and committees to effect change has also been high on Ms Spencer’s agenda. Before her magisterial appointment, she was on the board of the Good Shepherd Youth and Family Services and the Victorian Council of Social Service. Previously, she was involved in the Victoria Legal Aid Community Consultative Committee and the Public Interest Law Clearing House.

“My work has always shifted into activism and social change work and sitting on management committees and boards and that has all had to stop,” she said.

But she said she was now interested in finding ways of making a contribution as a magistrate.

“The Magistrates’ Court is a people’s court; it is where most ordinary citizens will come into contact with the law – whether it is through criminal proceedings or family violence proceedings or civil proceedings – and the opportunity to play a role in access to justice in that court is just too exciting to pass up.”


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