• Print this page

The Spirit of the law

Melbourne Corps 614’s Darryl Annett is working to keep Salvation Army clients engaged in holistic efforts to ‘save’ their skin. This article has been printed in the on fire magazine.

Photo by Doyle BarrowDarryl Annett - Urban Justice Centre

The setting is the first floor of Melbourne Project 614 on Bourke Street, early one brisk winter’s morning scant days before the Red Shield Appeal. Cue the crisis: Solicitor advocate Darryl Annett is fielding phone messages, scanning emails and playing phone tag, trying to catch a person due to appear in a magistrate’s court.

While it’s far from a new experience for Darryl, it is relatively new in the context of The Salvation Army Australia Southern Territory.* ‘The 614 motif is interaction and engagement, and after initial approval last September I came onto the team in November 2012,’ Darryl recalls.

‘My client base is “our” client base – anybody who is a client or part of Melbourne 614 is a potential client of mine. We develop relationship and trust over time, and inevitably we find other issues in a person’s life that are buried and obscured by pressure, stress, mental health issues or just the weight of life itself.

‘Client’s issues, like their lives, are complex. The legal issues are not separate from the rest of their lives; they are intertwined with hurts and challenges, to the degree to which you don’t find out other issues until you are well and truly down the track with them. Our teamwork approach recognises that information is power, and that disclosure comes gradually.’

The teamwork that 614 requires and practises means that staff members encourage their clients to utilises all of the help they can get. That means one of Darryl’s colleagues can recommend his services to someone who acknowledges they are working through a custody dispute, or facing charges for fare evasion, to assault, burglary or theft, etc.                         

Darryl readily acknowledges there is a litany of reasons why people can end up on the wrong side of police officers and legal proceedings:

Homelessness and the risk of homelessness, accompanied by poor or inadequate housing. Poor decision making and the seeming inability to delay gratification, exacerbated by the bland dismissal or contemptuous judgment of more affluent citizens, who clients say ‘don’t know or care about me’.

Near-starvation and malnutrition, mental illness, the lack of hope, and the lethargic discontent that accompanies non-consumers in a dried-up, dispirited consumer society.

Alcohol and other drug use and/or addictions, high levels of stress that leave people disoriented and disorganised. A lifelong lack of educational, cultural and workplace opportunities, and often a deficit of supportive, non-coercive relationships with friends and family members.

But Darryl suggests that there is an additional dimension to the fears of the people he helps: their perception of the law. ‘Part of my role is to try to reverse and dispel some of the mystique that surrounds the law,’ he explains. It’s a de-mystification process. My background is in criminal law, and I find that the fact that the clients see something as a “legal issue” is the first hurdle they have to get over.

‘We sometimes work with, and mediate on behalf of, people with diminished capacities; this requires good, common sense to deal with the law’s bureaucracy. I have a terrific resource in my legal colleagues in Melbourne.

Is the reality for Salvation Army clients, then, as clear cut as Roosevelt’s adage last century, that the only thing they have to fear is fear itself? Darryl smiles sadly and notes that it’s not that simple; many people do have cause for grave concern, including the possibility of incarceration. But the nature of legal proceedings adds additional terrors.  

‘The breadth of an individual’s causes and issues have surprised me,’ Darryl concedes, ‘and there are individual cases that have given me pause for thought…I see a lot of sorrow and exploitation, but I also have a large number of supportive, concerned lawyers who want to come aboard in future days to help.’

It’s no mean feat to surprise a veteran who has been in and out of courts and prisons for  ’30 odd years; 25 of those in criminal law for both prosecution and the defence’. And the surprise is extended to clients, also, who normally receive limited help from inexperienced lawyers just starting out.

‘It’s great to turn around now at this stage of my career,’ laughs Darryl, ‘and help people whom I would have assisted when I was just commencing. They get me now with decades of service and experience, and the resulting level of professionalism and savvy.

‘Prior to coming onboard with Brendan [614 CO Major Brendan Nottle], it’s been a long time since I’ve worked with people trapped in such complex webs. I am sharing the burden of care, and you can’t push stuff away. You have to help shoulder some of the burden and responsibility – it’s actually a bit confronting.’

The more learned readers will hear resonances in Darryl’s words, an intimation of another world to come and the biblical exhortation (Galatians 6:2) to ‘bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ’. Darryl’s Christian values are central to both his passion for justice and his compassionate approach to those he serves.  

The joy in seeing cases resolved in a sensible and helpful manner lift Darryl and the other 614 team members. He says they share an esprit de corps and a ‘really positive, “can do” attitude’.

One of those colleagues, safe exits strategist Anthony McEvoy, says his team have already made more than 35 referrals to Darryl, who has stood up and been counted in magistrates courts, the family court, county courts, [and ‘the children’s court’?] and mediated in several contentious custody and estate disputes. 

‘Most of our clients come with a suite of issues relating to criminal activities,’ explains Anthony, ‘and Darryl interviews them, represents them in court, follows up and grows in their estimation. The feedback we get form clients is that Darryl is kind and is a sensational advocate; they know the guy’s a fantastic lawyer who cares about them.’

It’s high praise, and well earned. Anthony says the 614 workers also get referrals back from Darryl as more comes to light and Darryl drills down intelligently into why the client is seeking legal help and what led to their problems with the law. Darryl has also done pro bono work for The Salvation Army Crisis Centre in St Kilda and represented kids who have resided at the Army’s Tranmere Street facilities – he’s got form!’

Members of the general community struggle to understand the vital nature of Darryl’s efforts. But Anthony explains that ‘90% of our clients have special, highly complex circumstances impacting their criminal behaviour, such as acquired brain injuries, intellectual disabilities, undiagnosed mental health illnesses, unrelenting addictions…

‘Darryl is a highly experienced, professional lawyer who “gets it” and develops long-term case work and defences. We meet a guy in our cafe or the laneway, they agree to be case-managed by us and we review their housing, employment, mental and physical health issues, and Darryl keeps many of our guys out of custody. They just would not survive the prison system and many have already been bashed, sexually violated, stood over and traumatised.

‘Sometimes they are placed in “protection’ alongside sexual predators and sex offenders, and misunderstood to be “dogs” or criminal informers by other inmates. For our clients, a custodial sentence can potentially be a death sentence.’

This is serious stuff for Salvation Army clients. Thank God they have a serious advocate in Darryl Annett. Barry Gittins

* Funding streams to empower Darryl’s work with Salvation Army clients include support from a Victorian government homeless innovation action program (as part of a wrap-around service) and from Baillieu Myer AC, the co-founder and past president of the Myer Foundation. There is no direct funding from The Salvation Army for this vital work at present.

Melbourne project 614 CO Major Brendan Nottle is also chaplain to the mighty Collingwood Magpies. Click here for more information on Melbourne Project 614’s support of impoverished Melburnians, in partnership with the Collingwood Football Club.