The case that

changed me

The Shopfront Legal Centre’s Jane Sanders tells JANE SOUTHWARD how a case of fake kidnapping 20 years ago taught her the importance of listening.

Most of our clients are homeless and all of them are living difficult lives. They need support that extends beyond their immediate legal problem. It’s why Herbert Smith Freehills, Mission Australia and the Salvation Army fund the Shopfront.

In the late 1990s, I had been working at the Shopfront for about five years when I started acting for a young woman in her late teens who initially came to us for a second opinion. She lived at home with her mum, who was doing it tough as a single parent.

This young woman – who sadly has since died – had been traumatised as a kid and had some pretty serious mental health issues. She came up with an idea with some friends to stage the kidnapping of a friend so they could ask his parents for a ransom and use the money to pay off his drug debt. It was obviously a stupid idea.

The police arrested her for kidnapping and, when they interviewed her, she hadn’t slept for 48 hours, hadn’t taken her medication, and was really unwell. She made all sorts of admissions, which some basic fact-checking would have shown to be unreliable, but the police thought they had caught a big fish. She was charged with kidnapping and drug supply and was initially refused bail.

Her lawyer had suggested she plead guilty because the case against her appeared overwhelming. She was uncomfortable about this and that’s when she came to the Shopfront for advice. When we finally received the custody management records from the police, we discovered she had asked if she could call a lawyer and the police had refused this. In exceptional cases police can refuse a request for someone to phone a friend or relative, but they cannot refuse a request to access a lawyer. That’s an absolute right.

None of that really surprised me. I was experienced enough in this type of work by then to know that police don’t necessarily always do the right thing. What was gobsmacking was that they could refuse her a lawyer and record it in the custody management records; clearly, they didn’t think they were doing anything wrong.

There are a lot of police officers who unfortunately don’t have adequate training and understanding about their obligations under the law. Some of them, through pure lack of understanding, commit serious breaches of law.

When the Director of Public Prosecutions saw that she had been refused the right to legal advice, they dropped most of the charges. The client ended up pleading guilty to a much less serious charge and was released on a good behaviour bond, which allowed her a better chance to get treatment for her mental health.

One of the things this case taught me is the importance of really investigating seriously and listening carefully to your client’s instructions. It can be difficult to find the time to really drill down into the issues with your client, or to find a time when the client is in the right space to do this, particularly if they are homeless or have mental health issues. But even when your case seems hopeless, sometimes you can come up with something that is absolute gold.

The other aspect of this case that affected me was the client’s untimely death a few years later. I’ve learnt to accept that I can’t save clients’ lives, let alone save the world. But I still believe I can make life better by treating young people with dignity and allowing them to be heard.