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Opinion: What women want

News

Cite as: September 2015 89 (9) LIJ, p.24

The experiences of regional women coming to court in family violence matters reveal a lack of understanding of the need for offender accountability. 

2015 marks the 10th anniversary of the Bendigo-based Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Centre (LCCLC). Our lawyers have assisted thousands of family violence victims, predominantly through duty lawyer services at the Bendigo Magistrates’ Court and its satellites.

We wanted to know about the experience of regional women coming to court. So in 2012 LCCLC began a three-year project funded by the Legal Services Board to provide family violence legal assistance to women across magistrates’ courts in central Victoria combined with a research initiative that focused on women’s needs. The results are contained in the report, “Will Somebody Listen to me?”

We began by surveying women who had applied for intervention orders, 190 in total, and followed up with in-depth interviews with 27 women after their matters were finalised.

Many had mixed experiences of the legal process and none felt they had their need of offender accountability or restoration met. They spoke of their fear, isolation, health issues, financial pressures, sense of grief and loss, injustice, lack of self-belief, exhaustion and guilt as a result of seeking legal assistance.

They found going to court daunting due to being inadequately informed, misunderstood by court staff, lawyers and magistrates, intimidated, unsafe, overwhelmed, alienated and having little or no privacy or time to make informed decisions.

We asked women what they wanted to achieve by applying for an intervention order. The top responses were: concerns for my safety, to be heard and respected, to make my children safer, and to begin to heal from the harm that has been caused.

What did the women wish for the offenders?

  • for him to acknowledge the harm he has done;
  • for his behaviour to be monitored;
  • for him to be challenged about his behaviour;
  • for him to engage with services to help change his behaviour.
  • Somewhat surprisingly only 28 per cent of women expressed a strong desire for the perpetrator to be punished.

    The interviews provided rich data. In an ideal process there would be:

    Participation – for the decision making to be more in their hands, for them to be well informed and understand the justice system, and for justice to be affordable and accessible;

    Voice – to be heard, that the legal actors really listen and victims are empowered to articulate their experience;

    Validation – for their feelings, behaviour and experiences to be understood; to be believed, not judged or made to feel ashamed;

    Offender accountability – that the offender acknowledges the harm he has caused, apologises, changes his behaviour and that the community and justice system monitor his behaviour and hold him accountable; and

    Restoration – that the justice process is understood as the beginning of healing – not the end.

    The key messages from the research are participation, safety and accountability. They command sophisticated responses by governments and their instrumentalities.

    Enabling greater participation in a jurisdiction more naturally suited to hearing civil disputes or criminal prosecutions (where the victim is largely silenced) will require creativity.

    Devising and resourcing a suite of offender accountability responses will be similarly challenging.

    Offender accountability will require more tailored responses than blunt criminal sanctions – jailing perpetrators is a dead end. If accountability is to have a long-term impact it must have meaning for the perpetrators.

    Better accountability is likely to be echoed in submissions to the Royal Commission into Family Violence. The dearth of sentencing options must be brought to the fore.

    It is heartening that the state government appears open to rethinking early intervention – behaviour change programs, gender equality training, respectful relationships education – and accountability in this jurisdiction (as evidenced by its recent submission to the Royal Commission into Family Violence). It is too important to sacrifice to blunt systems.

    The LCCLC’s report makes 19 recommendations around court structures and practice. They take in information and support, legal services, participation in court and court safety. It is recommended applicants have the same lawyer throughout the process, that they address the magistrate if they want to, have allegations read in open court, that lawyers get specialist training, that there be two duty lawyers at all courts and that security systems are improved.

    “Will Somebody Listen to me” is at www.lcclc.org.au.

    Peter Noble is executive officer, ARC Justice, incorporating LCCLC; Bonnie Renou is an LCCLC family violence project lawyer and Carolyn Neilson is a family violence project researcher.

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