“The Singing Was Quite Beautiful But Was Preventing Me From Hearing the Evidence”

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Maybe this shouldn't be the case, but the fact is that singing in court is rarely appropriate.

I'd have said "never appropriate" had I not participated in a trial in which the plaintiff's attorney sang "What the World Needs Now Is Love" to the jury during closing argument. I didn't actually witness it, unfortunately, and so was surprised to hear that the jurors did not come down out of the box and beat him senseless, as I would have predicted. I was even more surprised that they later gave his client several million dollars, as I would not have predicted. But such is life. It's much more likely that singing in court will backfire, and at a minimum, you should not sing while evidence is being presented.

Also, don't call the judge "woman."

Those are among the lessons of this judgment, issued on November 7 in New South Wales (reported by the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday). This was a civil case brought by Sonni N'Ge-Sala, whose claims arose out of a 2008 police shooting. Since he wasn't the one who got shot, it's probably more accurate to say that Susan Bandera's claims arose out of the shooting, and N'Ge-Sala's claims arose out of his imagination.

Since the facts also involve four stubbies and a cocktail fork, they are worth a quick summary (and hopefully at least one more click).


A "stubby"
(Photo: Simon Laird)

Bandera's version was that she had been walking home alone at about 1:30 am after consuming "four stubbies of beer"—this term was new to me, and so I illustrate it here—and smoking two joints during the preceding 12 hours. She encountered N'Ge-Sala, he grabbed her, and she stabbed him with the silver cocktail fork she happened to have in her coat pocket and fled. N'Ge-Sala's version: he was minding his own business when he was suddenly stabbed with a cocktail fork, whereupon he called police and gave chase.

It was undisputed that the chase ended at a nearby apartment block and that residents there also called police. Police found the two of them struggling, and at some point Bandera broke away and ran towards the officers. Now, one might think this to be a wise direction to run. One would often be wrong about that, whether or not one is holding something silver and pointy in one's hand as Bandera still was. Perceiving a threat, the officers shot Bandera twice.

Both Bandera and N'Ge-Sala sued. As her claim was not completely ridiculous, it settled during trial. His claim, on the other hand, was apparently that the police had been aiming at him and hit Bandera by accident. That would technically be an assault, so okay. But it's not the strongest claim, and that would be true even if you didn't then repeatedly insult the judge (among others), babble incomprehensibly, and, eventually, sing during the other side's evidence.

Looking at the transcript excerpts in the judgment, it is remarkable that Judge McCallum put up with as much as she did. When N'Ge-Sala arrived to continue his case (he was, of course, representing himself), he was obviously upset with the judge, apparently because he believed she had conspired to let someone rummage through his belongings and steal his phone. Here's how he started things off:

PLAINTIFF N'GE-SALA: Ma'am, excuse me. You see, probably you do not like it me call you, ma'am. That's why I did say last time I'm not going to not call you your Honour because I do not know there is any honour in you. Probably you like me to call you woman.

HER HONOUR: I don't really mind what you call me, Mr N'Ge-Sala, but are you ready to proceed with your case? 

He continued to refer to her as "woman," doing so no less than nine times just during the part of the transcript quoted in the judgment. This ranged from just being insultingly dismissive ("remove yourself out of my sight, woman"), to implying she was not entitled to be called "judge," or that's what I think he was doing by calling her "Woman McCallum" ("Woman McCallum, I say I am not continuing with me court case unless you remove yourself out of my sight."). The judge was remarkably polite through all this, even after "Mr N'Ge-Sala … suggested that, if I wanted to make some quick money, I could go in the street, put on some nice clothes and some high heels and 'stop some car in the street.'"

Surprisingly still not in jail by this point, N'Ge-Sala then decided to sing while a recording (probably of a phone call) was being played:

After Detective Lawler was sworn to give evidence, Mr Bodor sought to have a sound recording played to him. While the recording was being played, Mr N'Ge-Sala began singing in what sounded like an African language. I asked him please to be quiet so that I could hear the evidence. The singing continued. It should be acknowledged that the singing was quite beautiful but it was preventing me from hearing the evidence. Accordingly, I directed Mr N'Ge-Sala to stop singing so that I could conduct the hearing, again relying on s 62 of the Civil Procedure Act. After some minutes, I warned Mr N'Ge-Sala that if he did not stop singing I would dismiss the proceedings. He stopped singing and started shouting at me. Our exchange proceeded as follows:

HER HONOUR: Mr N'Ge-Sala if you don't stop singing I'm going to dismiss the proceedings.

PLAINTIFF: You're going to dismiss, who's presenting this, this woman?

HER HONOUR: Please stop singing.

PLAINTIFF: What you going to do?

(Emphasis added.) What she did was dismiss his case, but still not until after another exchange in which N'Ge-Sala managed to become totally incomprehensible, such as promising the judge that "as long as God will be alive, you be picked up like a wet rubbish bag by the Interpol police." It's interesting how something can clearly be insulting though it has no actual meaning whatsoever.

I almost wish she'd let him go on longer, since he was obviously just hitting his stride, but she'd put up with enough.