A Canberra woman in her late 80s recently received a traffic infringement ticket for speeding. She has, I believe, a 60-year conviction-free record, and on that account, wrote to the Australian Federal Police asking that the fine be waived.
Here's the response, last week, from Sergeant M Barber, who describes himself as a delegate of the ACT Chief Police Officer, Rudi Lammers, in such matters. Rudi spent some of this week describing the qualities of an ideal Police Commissioner, but, it sometimes seems to me, spends all too little thinking about the ideal qualities of some of his delegates.
Sergeant Barber noted that the woman's representation amounted, in law, to a dispute about the infringement. So here, he said, was what now had to happen. Anything in square brackets is my interpolation.
"The notice will be placed on hold and application [will be] made for the issue of a summons, which you will receive in due course. You should be aware that once a summons is sworn for this matter it will appear on your criminal record irrespective of the final outcome. [Yep, guilty or innocent, you are guilty as far as the AFP is concerned.]
"On the date shown in the summons you will be required to attend the Canberra magistrate's court to indicate to the the court whether you intend to plead guilty or not guilty to the offence. [As I described some weeks ago, you will wait for ages until the magistrate has processed all of the cases in which the clients are represented by solicitors, and, most likely, you will be lucky to be out court within 90 minutes.]
"If a plea of not guilty is entered, the Court will set the matter down for hearing at a later date. At the hearing date you should again attend the court and bring any witnesses and/or information that will assist the court in reaching a decision.
"You should be aware there may be costs resulting from a court hearing that you may be responsible for. [This is, in effect, an extra fine imposed upon you by the Attorney-General, Simon Corbell for the impertinence of wanting to have your guilt demonstrated.]
[You can assume, given the glacial pace of magistrates, and their lack of regard for the convenience of anyone other than themselves, their personal staff and solicitors, that your case, which will last about two minutes, will not get on until you have been waiting around for a further two or three hours.]
The letter adds that once the summons is served the woman can pay the fine, but, if she does, the onus is on her to notify the court otherwise the hearing will proceed.
The good point, I suppose, is once this woman had been put through this meaningless merry-go-round, she would almost certainly have had the matter dismissed, even by the most heartless magistrate. A good driving record, of even 15 years, gives you one-get-out-of-jail free card on a traffic matter as no one would know better than the sergeant.
Sergeant Barber did not quite advise getting a lawyer. Police officers seldom do. A lawyer might save some time, since it is automatically assumed by magistrates, and now, apparently the ACT Law Society once magistrates begged it to defend them from criticism of their unseemly partiality, that anyone who gets a lawyer, and the lawyer him or herself, is more important than any defendant in person. But getting a lawyer for a traffic matter will never save money, given that the solicitor, on a generous day would charge about $1500 to $2000 so as to help one escape a fine of about a tenth of that.
But it did not come to that with this woman. The woman was sufficiently intimidated by the officiousness and the procedure, paid the fine, and must now be regarded as one of those desperate criminals rendered neutral by the efforts of Assistant Commissioner Lammers, and his hordes of officers.
The sergeant in question would have had a considerable latitude in deciding whether a person should be charged with rape or assault, or theft, or shoplifting or burglary, and quite often, especially if the person is important, the system will even weigh issues of public interest, or the likelihood of whether a jury, properly instructed, would convict. With some types of case, especially involving white collar crime, police complain that DPP will not proceed unless conviction is certain.
But there is precious little leeway allowed or ever demonstrated when it comes to a low-level traffic offence.
The unsmiling and entirely unsympathetic response is his, and the ACT Government's way of saying, just plead guilty. It's not worth the time or the effort to oppose the forces of nature which descend on you once you fall into the Kafkaesque hell of a Simon Corbell traffic or parking infringement notice case. Indeed, Corbell recently said virtuously that people should be discouraged from going to court over traffic matters and his system is a hummer.
By the law of the land, at least since Magna Carta in 1215, a woman, or even a man is innocent until she is proven guilty. And then only after a finding in a court of law by due process and a rule of law. Sir Richard Blackburn once declared that this was still good law in the ACT, but in any event the much trumpeted but virtually useless ACT Bill of Rights says the same thing.
But the ACT Human Rights Commission can never be bothered with anything as mundane as a traffic matter. On the "collegial" bulletin board of the fabulously funded and seriously underworked commission one will find papers galore on any number of obscure but trendy causes, but nothing very much about matters that affect nearly every citizen, particularly those who are poorer than average. The ACT issues about 100,000 parking infringement notices a year.
The framers of the ACT Bill of Rights have given themselves an excuse for such neglect of any notion of rights. It turns out that under the much vaunted Bill of Rights a right to due process exists only in respect of "criminal" matters. Unless it suits otherwise or one makes a fuss. Only about 12 per cent of those given a ticket complain; in about half of these the tickets are quietly withdrawn. Those who demand court get it, but only 14 of 100,000 got a hearing.
There are many other forms of administrative penalties, including traffic matters, creating an almost universal criminality among the citizenry and raising far more revenue than the formal criminal justice system. But these are now to be regarded as "administrative" and not criminal, and thus involving no rights or presumptions at all.
The innocent-until-proven-guilty rule applies if someone makes an allegation of rape, or assault, or shoplifting. Even when there is some evidence pointing to guilt, a policeman or a prosecutor will ask whether the public interest justifies proceeding, whether the offence is too trivial for words, or whether a conviction is, in all of the circumstances, likely. Discretion is exercised every day of the week, and probably fewer than one in five matters that could go lead to proceedings actually lead to charges. In 10 per cent or so of such cases, not guilty verdicts ensue in spite of the tight guidelines.
But not if it's a traffic offence. Or a parking offence. If one is accused of speeding, or running a red light, of going overtime in a parking zone or (as I was recently) parking on the nature strip in the driveway to my own home, one is guilty until one is proven innocent. Likewise with a host of other matters by which bureaucrats have granted themselves power to impose "administrative" fines on anyone who has displeased them, without any due process of law, or, as often or not any chance to be heard.
There is almost invariably a right of appeal, if only by common law, but one will struggle to find it, and probably have to fill in a form, applying for the "right" to be allowed dispute liability. One can't do it by phone, or to the official who issued the ticket if one was there, or simply by ignoring the matter. Doing nothing (or being completely ignorant of the matter) is proof you are guilty. Perhaps it's only right that your "criminal record" will hold you guilty if you have been acquitted.
It is not clear that one can dispute liability by email, but, in many cases, the official will demand that any statements or assertions you make have to be sworn to in front of a JP. All by way of making things more time-consuming and difficult, and to encourage people to pay up because they do not have the spare day or two doing everything necessary to contest an fine of say $150.
With traffic offences, once the process starts, the discretion to drop matters is very limited, and, in any event, the registrar is very reluctant to say what sorts of representations could lead to the dropping of a matter by his initiative. Apparently some representations work, but we are not allowed to know what sort. This is on the assumption that all citizens are liars, and that if any citizen heard of a successful excuse used by another, she or he would copy it and there is the possibility that a guilty person might escape. The ACT Administrative Appeals Tribunal is believed to have endorsed this amazing reasoning, which could turn any notion of public justice, or transparent administration, on its head.