When I arrived at the Stafford advice Bureau on the first Monday in August there were already a few people huddled around a table, waiting. There were plenty of other tables free but they had chosen to sit together, united in their anxious wait to speak to a lawyer. From amongst the group, Eric emerged and came and sat down in front of me. A young man in his late twenties, Eric was at first reluctant to share his story.
Slowly, with many questions and gentle promptings, Eric opened up. Like so many people who Salvos Legal Humanitarian assists, Eric’s need was not just a ‘legal’ one.
Eric had been booked by the police for drink driving and had to go to court. Although his blood alcohol count was well within what would normally be the acceptable range (that is, less than 0.05), because he was a P-plater, any alcohol reading, however negligible, put him over the limit. On top of that, his licence had been suspended, so Eric should not have been driving at all.
Eric’s history was troubling. This was not the first time he had been caught drink driving. His traffic record showed several charges for drink driving, speeding and driving while suspended. As Eric had been caught driving while his licence was suspended again, he was facing a term of imprisonment of at least three months. Eric begged me to go with him to court to speak on his behalf.
When I asked him when he had to attend court, he said, “on Friday.” Upon further questioning, I found out that “on Friday” meant in less than four days’ time.
The more I talked to Eric, the more his story unfolded. As a teenager he had fled the ravages of war in his home country and come to Australia to begin a new life. However, all he had seen and suffered came with him. He was subsequently diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a schizoaffective disorder, and placed on medication. Yet in all this, Eric managed to maintain the same employment for six years. He told me that he worked hard at his job to take his mind off the flashbacks and nightmares. His relentless efforts meant that he was able to send money back to the rest of the family overseas.
At about 9am on the day Eric committed his latest offence, he had received a telephone call from his uncle. His uncle had some news that needed to be told to Eric in person. In the knowledge that his licence was suspended, Eric took the train to his uncle’s house. As Eric had expected, the news was not good.
Eric’s two older sisters had been shot to death while they slept. Eric had not seen his sisters since he left for Australia. Now, instead of the hope that they would one day all be reunited, he would never see them again. Two important members of his family had been taken from him.
Unsurprisingly, the news caused Eric much distress. He turned to alcohol. When he could drink no more, he slept for about three hours. When he woke, still numb from the initial shock and grief, he took the keys to his step-brother’s car intending to head over to the chemist to fill a prescription. He had run out of the medication used to help manage the voices he heard in his head. On the way to the chemist, Eric was stopped by the Police. He was unable to produce a licence and gave a positive reading when taking a breathalyser.
Eric was really worried about the possibility of going to gaol. Gaol would mean he couldn’t work. Not working meant he would not have any money to send overseas to those of his family who remained. For them especially, a custodial sentence for Eric would be disastrous.
Eric clearly understood that what he did was wrong, dangerous and against the law. However, he also believed that there were other factors that should be presented to the Court. He wanted the Court to understand that he had heard very disturbing news about his family, he drank to dull the pain, and he had run out of his medication.
It was clear to me that Eric was in no position to represent himself. I agreed to speak on his behalf before Court at the end of the week.
Eric and I turned up to Court on Friday. I made submissions on Eric’s behalf and painted what I am sure was a terribly understated picture of what the young man had been through prior to coming to Australia. At the conclusion of my submissions, the Magistrate told us that he was a former member of the Australian Military and had served overseas. The Magistrate indicated that he was certain that he had not experienced in his military service half of what Eric had been through in his teenage years. The Magistrate was clearly sympathetic to Eric’s plight, and in the sentencing, the Magistrate showed his compassion. Eric was given a 3-month suspended sentence with a further disqualification of his licence for the next 12 months. The Magistrate admonished Eric and warned that if Eric were to come before his Court again, the consequences would be much more severe.
As we walked to the elevator, Eric bent his head and spoke softly to himself, “How did it get to this?”
As people who live in a country where there has been no war visited upon its shores in over six decades, we sometimes cannot comprehend what the ravages of war can do to those who have experienced it. We do not understand the scars and destruction it wreaks upon those left alive. We also have little understanding of what is commonly referred to as ‘survivors’ guilt’, a complex that many newly settled refugees suffer from. I left the Court believing that Salvos Legal Humanitarian, along with a compassionate Magistrate, had made a difference in Eric’s life, and the lives of those who depended on him.