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Magistrate Pauline Spencer: using the law to change lives

Written by Ellen McCutchan

Magistrate Pauline Spencer (Photo: Ellen McCutchan)


It is near impossible to find a photo of Magistrate Pauline Spencer online. Interviews are few and far between. Articles about Spencer’s decisions in court are plentiful but tell me nothing about the woman handing down the sentences.

I worry at first, given her sparse Internet presence, that Spencer will be coy, and unwilling to comment on some things. But she quickly puts me at ease, both with her kind voice and her articulated, opinionated answers to my questions.

Spencer first entered into law after what was almost a challenge from her brother.

“Like a lot of young people, I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I was leaning towards being a vet, or a physiotherapist, something down that path,” she tells me one morning in her office before she heads into court for the day.

“My brother said to me, ‘all you women go into these caring professions, why don’t you go into commerce or law and make money and be powerful’, and so that’s what I did.”

Spencer sees self-doubt as a key factor holding women back professionally, but makes it clear that this is not the fault of women.

“I think it’s really about that confidence to put yourself forward, and that seems to come naturally to men because of the way their brought up. I think that’s what I had to learn early, that I had to put myself out there.”

The systemic set up of workplaces is also something Spencer sees as a barricade for women in the legal profession.

“A lot of women my age have children, and workplaces are not supportive of that. If court doesn’t finish at four, and you have to pick up your kid, you can’t just say to the judge ‘I’ve got to go’ and walk out,” she says.

Completing her law degree in Queensland in the late 80s and early 90s, Spencer says that the course was very much focused on black letter law.

“There was no social aspect like there is in law degree nowadays, and certainly no mention of therapeutic jurisprudence.”

Therapeutic jurisprudence is a legal philosophy and way of applying the law so that it best benefits the community. It involves using social science and research to inform how a lawyer, magistrate or judge would best deal with those coming before them in court.

“I’m working with people who have drug addictions and mental health problems and other complex needs so why wouldn’t I want to know what the social science says will best rehabilitate them,” Spencer says.

Magistrate Jack Vandersteen, who works alongside Spencer at the Dandenong Magistrates’ Court, says that Spencer has been a driving force behind a number of community programs aimed at rehabilitation.

“Pauline is extremely hardworking and dedicated, and shows unwavering commitment to programs she has a hand in,” Vandersteen says.

But it’s not just about the defendants for Spencer. Helping victims to feel supported and heard through the court process is also important to her.

“I want them to understand what’s going on and why I’m making the decisions I’m making,” Spencer tells me.

“Yesterday I had a victim in court, and I was fining the defendant so I asked the victim if he wanted the money donated to a specific charity and he chose the Breast Cancer Foundation. It shows the victim that something good can come out for the bad thing that happened to them.”

Unfortunately for Spencer, trying to make sure the victim is supported and understands court proceedings is not always successful.

Two days after my interview with Spencer, the victim, Michael Tallal started an online petition calling for ‘justice for victims, not for criminals’ and spoke to a number of media outlets. He claimed that the legal system had failed him as a victim.

Spencer didn’t comment on this particular incident, but did talk to me about media scrutiny and inaccurate reporting.

“I’m quite comfortable to have the media scrutinise what I do, but the challenge is that it’s often not accurate,” she told me before the Tallal incident, more or less predicting the events of the next few days.

“People don’t come to court and see what’s going on, and it can be a little frustrating. We can’t speak out. It’s not appropriate for me to comment.”

Media scrutiny has been especially prevalent for all Magistrates in recent months, with incidents of youth crime – and the perceived ‘soft’ approach to youth crime taken by the courts – appearing almost daily in newspapers and on TV news bulletins.

Spencer says that while there has not been a rise in youth crime, the types of crimes being committed have changed.

“The thing with youth crime is that 90% of offenders only offend once or twice. But there is a small cohort, less that 2% of offenders, that are committing 25% of the crimes,” she explains.

“There has been a shift in the type of crime for that small percentage, and what we’re seeing now is the involvement of older people, who are organising for the youths to commit these crimes.”

Spencer argues for the greater involvement of rehabilitative organisations with young offenders, a cause she is clearly very passionate about.

“Some really intensive community work needs to be done, we needs teams of highly experienced youth psychologists working with these kids, and that’s just not being done at the moment.

“I’m concerned that we’ve either got lower level intervention or detention, and that we’re failing to meet that need in the middle.”

Spencer wraps up our interview to head into court, but not before asking me about myself. We talk about my studies and part-time job, and she seems to show a genuine interest.

I leave Spencer’s office feeling like I’ve met a woman who is empathetic, passionate, and who has the ability to change lives. I can only hope that at least some of those who come before her in court feel the same way. It seems like Pauline Spencer has gone into a caring profession after all.

About the author

Ellen McCutchan