Sweet Little Fish

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Little fish are sweet. High profile defamation actions and messy murder trials may make for big headlines, but from a lawyer’s point of view the smaller, seemingly less significant cases are just as challenging and (provided you finish first, and not just a commendable second) every bit as satisfying.

Picture by Sam Willis, Pexels

I’m sometimes bemused to have a new client effectively apologise in advance for wasting my time over what they class as a minor matter, although it is of great consequence to them personally. My response is always the same – any client who will pay my fee is certainly not wasting my time.

I finished one of those ‘little cases’ this week after what turned out to be a two-year war of attrition.

My clients were a pleasant, courteous mature-aged couple, both of whom had spent their lives working in the airline industry. The husband was a retired airline captain, and his wife had spent about 30 years as a flight attendant and airline administrator. They were flying business-class on an international flight when they incurred the wrath of several indignant young flight crew members.

It all began when the couple first boarded the plane and the wife was told by a stewardess to turn her phone off. As she struggled with the ‘close down’ process on her digital mobile phone, the young attendant perceived she was not obeying the direction quickly enough, and remonstrated with her accordingly. The plane was delayed on the tarmac before take-off, so consequently the seatbelt sign was still on nearly an hour after the couple had boarded. When the wife, who suffered from a weak bladder condition, left her seat and approached the galley to ask if she could use the toilets urgently, she was treated as a troublemaker and tersely directed to sit down.

Once the flight was under way, husband and wife repaired to the business-class bar, where they chatted with other passengers. The bar was mostly unattended by flight staff, but eventually a young stewardess came into the bar and announced, somewhat abrasively according to my clients, that the passengers were not entitled to pour their own alcoholic drinks. When the husband chipped the stewardess about discourteous behaviour, the flight manager personally fronted the husband and apologised for the young lady’s behaviour. Incident over, and the flight proceeded uneventfully from there.

However, unbeknownst to my clients, after the flight reached its final destination the stewardess and some of her co-workers lodged formal complaints against both husband and wife, alleging each of them had disobeyed a lawful direction. The charge was that the wife had disobeyed the seatbelt sign by getting out of her seat, which she readily conceded she had, but only because she was desperate to use the toilet. The husband, it was claimed, had disobeyed the stewardess’s direction by pouring himself an alcoholic drink at the bar, which he flatly and consistently denied.

Sound like a storm in a teacup? You’d think so, wouldn’t you. But the flight crew were expressing outrage that they had been disrespected, and both of my clients were equally affronted to have such allegations made about them after a lifetime of distinguished service in the airline industry.

After a 12 month investigation during which my clients made three separate statements answering the allegations, and produced a swathe of effusive personal references attesting to their impeccable character and record in the airline industry, both husband and wife were charged with breaches of the Civil Aviation Act. They could have paid a minor fine and disposed of it then and there, but they saw it as a hurtful and unjust slur on their reputation, and the battle lines were quickly drawn.

This week, after a four-day trial in the Magistrates Court both of my clients were finally vindicated. The charges against them were dismissed by the magistrate, they were both discharged, and in each case the prosecution was ordered to pay their legal costs.

Minor matters they may have been, but the court ruled the charge was objectively of special importance to both of the defendants, and ordered increased professional costs as a result. It was just a little summary trial about a couple of insignificant complaints that were never going to draw any serious penalty, but they were of huge importance to my clients at a personal level. When we walked out of the court I felt like we had just won a major High Court appeal.

Little fish are sweet.

Chris Nyst

Gold Coast Lawyer, Novelist and Film Maker

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