‘Trials and Tribulations in Community Law’ book by Neil Cole

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Neil Cole

Book Review by Meredith Fuller OAM Psychologist, Author, Documentary Maker

Neil Cole’s book consists of a series of amusing yet shocking vignettes about his fight for justice in Australia in the early 1980’s – a colourful time at the beginning of his career as a community lawyer in Flemington and Kensington. There are 35 short chapters about various young people who commit crimes; are stitched up for crimes they did not commit; are helped by community centre lawyers and youth workers, and how police and the law deal with young offenders.

Easy to dip in and out of, his vignettes are funny, sad, and shocking. This is a book for a multi-generational family to enjoy. Make sure you pass this book around far and wide! His style is easy to read, and the simplicity is non-judgemental and powerful. It is also a helpful book to chat about with young people who have ADHD.

During the 1980’s we were in a severe recession where unemployment rates in community housing high-rises were at a staggering 50% of the young people living there and police brutality and corruption accompanied family violence and discriminatory social attitudes. He talks about the underworld that dominated Melbourne society from the 1980’s and weaponed violence by alientated young people. Hang on a minute – what he’s describing is similar to our present day as well; apart from the apalling police apathy and corruption. This has been addressed and massively improved with education and better standards, despite inadequate recognition of the trauma and resources for the members. It is no longer the case that ‘domestics’ are ignored and a blind eye is turned to corruption – patriarchal and entitlement attitudes are being dealt with, but it will take generations to shift in our society. Tolerance for diversity is far greater now and there is more work required. (Further information about historical versus current-time attitudes and procedures is available on my eBook ‘Understanding Family Violence’ www.meredithfuller.com.au) However, regarding youth violence and crime, it can be observed that the more things change, the more they stay the same. While we now understand more about addiction and lack of educational opportunities or engagement in meaningful activities, the scourge of poverty, youth anomie and alienation is high. Cole writes about universal themes and relationship issues with curiosity and concern.

The protagonist, Neville, recalls his early cases when he was earnest, empathic, and innovative in his negotiations and problem solving. His care for young people – no matter how impetuous, aggressive or dismissive – is a clarion call for hope and the need to make some kind of connection with lost people.

Amusing tales include the inexperienced or careless youth like the adolescent who broke into a home to steal a television while the owners were at home watching it. Young people die and others turn their lives around. Unexpected experiences, synchronistic words, or simply the passage of time converge for a young person to decide that they can and are ready to change. There are both happy and sad outcomes.

What makes this book tragi-comedic is hearing about the young criminal behaviour of many public figures we have grown up with. The Morans, Christopher Dale Flannery, and many other criminals are discussed. We learn more about the impulsive, opportunistic thinking of young men who are bored, disengaged, and unloved against the backdrop of poverty and addiction. Cole’s anecdotes are different to the sardonic asides we read in most criminal story telling because he writes from his heart and acknowledges his fear, and desire to change the world a person at a time, no matter how naieve the contemptuous may label him. He is not a do-gooder, but a self reflective individual who respects his clients while seeking to implement caring, common sense solutions to complex problems.

When his herculean efforts do not prevent someone being killed or overdosing, he can be philosophical and accepting of the human condition.

Threads of some individuals are woven throughout his stories, including the trajectory of ‘the Runner’; a violent, hardened young man whose many escapes and disappearances embarrassed the police force and entertained the locals. Support services have improved since the 1980’s and the desire for restorative justice and rehabilitation are changing how the courts work. Cole’s tales from the 1980’s are a fascinating lesson of the horrific outcomes that result from society’s lack of understanding and therapeutic intervention.

Neil Cole, a multi award winning playwright and author has won the Aspire Award in 2017 from the Supreme Court of Victoria for his ground-breaking work on psychiatry in the theatre.

I recommend this book because it gives a quick insight into the 1980’s in an entertaining, exciting and instructive manner, and reminds us that it’s wise to explore what we don’t understand or fear. By considering each story we can gain a greater insight into the range of issues around what happens to young people and criminal behaviour – these simply told stories are timeless and potent.

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‘Trials and Tribulations in Community Law’ Neil Cole (2024)

Available to purchase from READINGS bookstores
$ 29.95

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