L’Esprit D’Escalier

L’Esprit D’Escalier

Monday, 27 March 2017

A blog written by our Broadmeadows Managing Lawyer Tom Munro.

Photo of Tom Munro
Broadmeadows Managing Lawyer Tom Munro

L'espirit D'Escallier, or 'staircase wit', is a French expression which means 'the biting ripostes that are thought of just seconds too late, on the way out of the room when you go down the stairs to the street'.

Some time ago, one of the lawyers at the office was sad. One of her clients had died. Her death was not the sort of dignified end that most would hope for.

Another client who had led a dreadful life tried to kill themselves. All this happened in a few days. At the time when I spoke to the lawyer I muttered a few things of comfort in a rather inarticulate way. Something like 'it all must be a bit difficult, why don't you ring the Employee Assistance Program?'

Later, after some time had passed, I thought about what I should have said. The client who died was an intellectually disabled woman who lived in a country area. She was an infectiously happy and pleasant person. Her greatest achievement was bringing up her kids – no mean achievement for a disabled woman living in isolation and poverty. She was a person who lived in a remote area and a lot of her offending consisted of driving charges. When she was suspended from driving, she did not have much of a support network to help her so she would keep driving. One of the social workers who worked with her would ring each time she re-offended.

The worker always thought that it must be jail this time. She would work frantically to negotiate with housing providers to keep the lease going through the anticipated jail time. Despite the workers fears our lawyer was able to keep the client out of jail time after time. This meant that she could continue to function in the community living in her rental accommodation and raising her family. Jail of course could have put her on a downward spiral, potentially making her homeless and leading to her losing her kids. 

The other client struggled for each day of his life. He was again intellectually disabled. He drifted into drug use. His drug use led to a health condition which caused him horrific physical injuries. This in turn led to a greater dependence on drugs. His representation consisted of endless attempts to get him out of jail on some program with many relapses. Heartbreaking work with set back after set back. Anyone who does summary crime will know of this type of tragic struggle.

What I should have said to our lawyer was 'well done mate, you did good'. You allowed a woman to live her life with some dignity. You stopped her getting jail time. That was important, as it gave her a chance to raise her kids and have something like a normal life. You rode the bumps for her and you were there when she needed you. If you had not been there for her, she could have lived a different life. She could have lost her house, her kids and sunk into a life of misery, depression and criminality.

You also helped another person. A person whose life was nothing short of an endless tragedy. At birth he was dealt a poor hand. His descent into drug use and crime was a path that was laid out for him and hardly a thing of his own doing. You were there trying to give him a chance. Arguing with the police and the courts to give them some insight into the life of someone was almost pre-ordained. You always tried to give him hope.

The job that you had was hardly easy. There are no big rewards for helping the poor and powerless. It is however an important thing that someone was there for both these people. With one of your clients you changed their life for the better. The other you tried to give him a chance and you gave him some hope.

All of us in manager's positions at Victoria Legal Aid owe it to our staff to occasionally stand back and say 'thanks, job well done, you made a difference.

'You are some of the few who work to give a voice and hope to those who otherwise would not have a voice and who would not have any hope.'

More information

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