Nearly 30 years ago, three young Indigenous kids were murdered in Bowraville. The gathering of evidence at the time left a lot to be desired, and it was many years later that a conscientious detective from Sydney was brought in to investigate.
However, the court cases that have occurred could be considered, to an outside layman, to be classic adversarial exercises in the best traditions of colonial law. There were little to no concessions to a cross-cultural world view.
Recent efforts to gain some justice for Bowraville family members has culminated in last week’s long-delayed Court judgement, ruling on whether a re-trial involving all three murders may be constituted, given ‘new and compelling evidence’.
Many family members went to Sydney to hear the ruling. Some 25 members who couldn’t make the trip, along with others sympathetic to their lack of justice and lack of resolution, were able to see the Criminal Court ruling on video link in Coffs Courthouse.
My wife and I were there. The system provided jugs of water, fruit and some sandwiches. The staff were considerate. As to the impending process, no words were offered and the video technology was poor, for hearing and seeing.
Those thoughtful staff gestures were swiftly smashed by a “justice” system that produced a tragic pantomime of all that is hopelessly wrong with our attempts at “closing the gap”. Two wigged Eminences, undoubtedly well versed in the intricacies of our laws, as well as the absolute need to provide reasons in law that are as unarguable as possible, spent a short few minutes reading from their prepared paper.
There was a brief introduction explaining how busy they were and hence how considerate it was for them to have found this moment when at least two of them could find time. The third was on holidays, so clearly could not be present. They were, they said, cognisant of the families’ troubles.
Then began a speech of arcane legalese, unmitigated by plain English interpretations. My background has, for better or worse, prepared me for presentations in jargon, and the judgements denying a chance for those families to obtain some resolution was a kick in the guts. To experience the process was ever more so, and made the outcomes so much worse.
The courthouse in Coffs was silent for a prolonged period following the short speech, as was apparently the case in Sydney. The wigged Eminences had abruptly adjourned the Court and walked out. A pregnant silence of incomprehension. What had just happened? What had been said? Was that the hearing?
There was no one to interpret what had been said, in plain English let alone in Gumbayggirr language, and I imagine our system would probably not allow a court official in Coffs to be so bold as to do so.
We can provide, with our western civilised system, some sandwiches and drinking water. We cannot provide the empathetic actions that can begin to reach across the gap. The judgements were tough enough to digest, but our processes are an appalling indictment about how far we still need to travel for a nation that can say “I am, you are, we are Australian.”