The Neighbourhood Justice Centre farewells Magistrate Fanning

Australia’s sole community justice magistrate recently farewelled the court he presided over for 15 years.

At a gathering of past and present staff, judicial officers and members of the Yarra community Justice Hannan said Magistrate David Fanning’s years at the Neighbourhood Justice Centre are distinguished by his unerring commitment to procedural and therapeutically focused justice.

Problem-solving, therapeutic courts require a magistrate to be both the independent arbiter of justice and a perceptive agent for change, willing to acknowledge and explore solutions to the problems that underpin offending.

Justice Hannan said Magistrate Fanning met this challenge by bringing together the tools built into the NJC model, including therapeutically focused judicial monitoring and onsite services with an acute understanding for the traumas and failed attempts at reform of many of those who came before him.

“He knew the road to recovery and reform was hard, but he believed in people’s capacity to change. As one practitioner said he did so even when circumstances seemed bleak, and many others have given up,” said Justice Hannan.

Guest speaker, Uncle Ringo illustrated these words when he spoke of how the Magistrate challenged him to account for his actions but adroitly used the law to give him time to transform his life.  

Uncle Ringo’s reflections on his relationship with a man who ultimately held a great deal of power over him was a moving tribute to a legal career dedicated to using the law with care, consideration, and compassion.

Appointed magistrate in October 2006, then-Attorney General Rob Hulls gave him the bench at the newly formed NJC where, from 2007 to late 2021 he presided over its multijurisdictional court hearing criminal and civil matters across the Magistrates’ and Children’s Court, and VOCAT and VCAT.

Magistrate Fanning earned a reputation for bench craft built on respect for all who entered the court, and respect for the law and the process at the core to the work.

He was renowned for his talent for getting across to clients that if they’re responsible for their behaviour, they’re empowered to make different choices too. As one practitioner said: “Even when he sent people to jail, his admonishments were met with a surprisingly degree of grace.”  

Believing the justice system has the duty to role-model respectful communications, he held legal practitioners to highest standard of behaviour, demanding not combat but dignified disputes.

His principled dedication to exemplary behaviour challenged practitioners to consider that if adversarial justice can’t have a dignified dispute, how can it support change in its clients?

By extension, more than one practitioner said their legal and advocacy skills developed significantly by appearing before him.

Magistrate Fanning had time for every member of the NJC team. He supported staff through good times and bad, joined its celebrations, and was a wise member of the leadership team.

Without doubt, his career shaped his approach to problem-solving, thereapeutic justice.

Prior to joining the NJC in 2006, Magistrate Fanning was Tasmania’s Commissioner for Children.

Before that, he was at the Victorian Bar for 16 years working in family law, child welfare law, and administrative law.  He began his legal career as a solicitor.

Prior to entering the law, he had an 8-year career as social worker in family support, mental health, and children protection working directly with children and vulnerable individuals and these formative years informed his responses to the traumas he saw every day.

His legacy is found in NJC’s can-do attitude to resolving complex problems and in the trust that clients have in the Centre they turn to for help, some long after they have exited the justice system.

Magistrate Fanning is at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court and will retire later this year. Magistrate Noreen Toohey, OAM now presides at the NJC.

Magistrate Fanning carried his authority with humility and led by example, resolutely dignified, transparent, and driven by a compassion for the human condition.

Authority with compassion. Compassionate authority.  The NJC is honoured to carry on Magistrate Fanning's legacy.