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Court farewells a 'living legend'

News

Cite as: September 2012 86 (09) LIJ, p.30.

Major Dennis McMillin may have well and truly served his time as Salvation Army chaplain at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court but it was still tough to let him go.

Working in the Melbourne Custody Centre (MCC), Dennis McMillin heard murderers brag, prisoners leap to his defence, and the fears of families.

But the words he most remembers are the thanks he received from alleged offenders for his support and work as Salvation Army chaplain at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court.

For more than 13 years, until the end of June, each day Major McMillin would make his way into the subterranean world of the court complex to where the sun literally never shines.

In the underground space he would speak with dozens of prisoners, from fearful first-timers to gangland identities to hardened repeat offenders who he came to know on a first-name basis.

Regardless of their charges, Major McMillin never judged.

“They had to be treated the same,” he said.

“Don’t worry I’ve heard some prisoners because they’ve been charged with murder . . . brag about it in their cell but our view was that a person charged with murder is no different from a person who’s been picked up with an aggravated burglary or an armed robbery or just a shoplift even.”

Major McMillin was a lifeline to the outside world for the prisoners in the city’s main holding cell waiting for court hearings or jail transfers.

And it was often left to him to be the first to tell distraught loved ones of a prisoner’s arrest.

Despite working so closely with some of Victoria’s worst criminals, Major McMillin said he never once felt threatened.

“Because we’re there to help them, they were very appreciative of what we do,” he said.

“Over the 13 years, there were many times where a prisoner would have a go at me and another prisoner would come up and abuse that prisoner and say, ‘You can’t do that, that’s the Salvos, leave them alone’.”

Major McMillin and his wife Thelma signed up for full-time work with the Salvation Army in 1986 inspired by their strong Christian faith and desire to help the disadvantaged.

He served at three churches – Emerald, Melton and Northcote – before receiving a letter informing him he had been assigned to the court in 1999.

As is the practice in the Salvation Army, Major McMillin had no say in the appointment and no experience with the legal system. He wasn’t even familiar with the term “remand”.

“The only tuition I got was when I replaced a guy who had been there five years and he took me around the Magistrates’ Court for one whole day,” he said.

“I went home that night and my head was swimming . . . it was just mind-blowing.”

Major McMillin had to learn quickly, not just the Salvation Army’s role, but how the justice system worked, including the jargon that peppers daily life at the court.

“The first three months was the steepest learning curve I’ve ever had in my life,” he said.

Mrs McMillin soon learned of the court’s immense workload and at her request received a Salvation Army posting by her husband’s side in 2002.

About the same time, Major McMillin started having discussions with then defence lawyer, now magistrate, Stephen Myall, about custody management issues.

The pair formed what has become the Victorian Custody Reference Group (VCRG) to shine a light on systemic custody problems as well as monitoring “stuff-ups” to ensure they are not repeated.

Major McMillin said the group’s ultimate aim was to reduce recidivism by giving prisoners the best chance to return to the community and get their lives on track.

The group, chaired by defence lawyer Rob Melasecca, now meets monthly and consists of up to 20 members including representatives from Victoria Police, LIV, Corrections Victoria, Koori Liaison, Centrelink, Department of Justice, MCC management, and both defence and prosecution lawyers.

Chief Magistrate Ian Gray told a farewell function that it was a credit to Major McMillin that he had been able to bring together some of the most influential people in justice to the VCRG on the promise of a biscuit and a cuppa.

He said the McMillins had helped thousands of people during their time at the court.

“Around the place, Dennis is referred to as a ‘living legend’, although I’m told he’s not too fond of the title,” Mr Gray told the crowd.

Major McMillin, in line with Salvation Army policy, had to retire once he reached government pension age this year, as his wife did in 2010 although she continued to volunteer at the court two days a week until her husband’s final day.

He said after the initial shock of not having to return to work and enjoying a Fiji holiday he and Mrs McMillin were now planning on travelling within Australia in their caravan.

But he didn’t hesitate when asked if he would miss court.

“Am already,” he said. “I just miss the people, the camaraderie . . . I’m going to miss working with people who also want to do the right thing.”

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