Victims of domestic abuse are confronted by many challenges in their dealings with the Victorian legal system. Whilst the Victorian judicial system have made several changes to attempt to facilitate access to justice, it needs to continue to reform in order to ensure victims of violence achieve justice, in a timely and sensitive fashion. A collaborative and intersectorial approach, with the support of the community is crucial as it creates an encouraging environment for women to pursue legal action; hence, empowering them. The idea of empowering battered women should be at the centre of all strategies and reforms that aim to assist and support victims of prolonged abuse inflicted by their partner. This essay will focus specifically on whether victims of domestic violence alone are adequately supported and the potential reforms that could be implemented.
The Victorian legal system should strive to change the victim blaming culture that surrounds the area of domestic abuse. Many battered women are often perceived by police, judges, jurors and legal personnel as somewhat responsible for the crimes and abuse committed by the perpetrator. They are frequently assumed to have provoked their attacker, either through external sexual relations claims, threats of leaving and threats of contacting police, as well as insults that have tarnished the male honour of the offender. Furthermore, battered women regularly report that they feel that the criminal justice system considers them “unworthy victims” for they clog up courts with perceived “trivial and unimportant family matters”. It is crucial that this anachronistic culture of victim blaming evolves so victims feel valued, supported and empowered in our society. In doing so, they are subsequently more likely to participate in justice.
Prior to 2005 in Victoria, provocation was accepted as a partial defence for killing another human being. This defence was mostly deployed by violent males who murdered their spouses and girlfriends in a fit of jealous rage. This defence essentially excused violence against women whilst simultaneously promoting an accepted culture of blaming the victim. As asserted by Victorian Attorney-General, Robert Hulls, this defence was and is a “hangover from a bygone era where women were actually treated as chattels”. The real loss of control asserted by defendants is that men have lost their control and autonomy of their spouse or girlfriend and this loss is an affront to their male honour. The abolition that occurred in 2005 undoubtedly promotes justice and support for victims of crime and their families. Jane Ashton, twin sister of deceased woman, Julie Ramage stated that the abolition will “not bring my sister back”. However, “all it will do in the long term will mean men will serve longer sentences which perhaps is gratifying for families of the victims”. There should be emphasis on promoting closure and justice for those impacted by crime: involving them in the legal procedure, ensuring the offender is sentenced fairly and justly as well as providing adequate personal and financial support – referring to the granting of compensation. The abolition of provocation ensures that offenders serve longer sentences, as the case is tried and convicted as murder instead of manslaughter. The Victorian Parliament’s decision to implement the recommendation of the VLRC and abolish provocation as a legitimate defence serves to support victims of crime – who include families, friends and communities.
A major factor hindering the ability of battered women accessing justice through the legal system is their reluctance to engage in criminal procedure. Many victims of domestic abuse are reluctant and fearful of instigating and continuing procedure due to personal, financial, cultural, religious or other factors. A large proportion of women do not obtain the financial resources required to participate in legal action. Furthermore, Victorian Legal Aid may not be provided, as cases are individually means-tested. It may be perceived by battered women that pursuing legal action is not beneficial as the potential gains fail to outweigh the adverse ramifications. Women with children and those situated in rural areas are limited in their ability to access and engage in justice, as the limited transportation options and difficult childcare arrangements make it difficult for victims to regularly attend court procedures. Moreover, women involved in some communities are sometimes less likely to proceed with legal action due to the community abandonment that may ensue following their cooperation with prosecution. Therefore, strategies and reforms must address these barriers that hamper one’s ability to access justice. Advocacy and education are crucial in order to empower women and encourage them to partake in the process of holding their perpetrator accountable. White Ribbon Day raises awareness of this silent issue devastating so many people, on a daily basis. White Ribbon Day is a means of supporting victims of domestic abuse whilst also garnering community support. All criminal justice personnel should refer battered women to domestic violence programs that promote their safety whilst also addressing the isolation that engulfs so many victims of domestic abuse. Encouraging victims to attend support groups is overwhelmingly necessary; these support groups act to empower women as they are more likely to recognise that they are not alone and they can be independent from their partner. Victim empowerment and victims being included in prosecution is a powerful tool and has a significant deterrent effect.
Those in fear of retaliation are twice as likely to resist participating in prosecution in contrast to those who do not fear reprisal. Society must create a supportive environment whereby victims feel comfortable contacting police and authorities without fear that their partner will pursue vengeance. Whilst there are currently bodies and organisations established that promote the status of victims of abuse, many women are unaware of their operations. Educating the community is undoubtedly crucial so victims can access justice. Without knowledge of one’s rights, how can the legal system expect individuals to pursue legal action when these rights have been infringed? Parliament needs to project a greater focus on education and informing the community. Educating the community can take the form of the Government investing in advertising and schemes that promote the rights of victims of abuse. Furthermore, the school curriculum could be reformed so people from a young age come to acknowledge the need to support victims of domestic abuse and condemn the violence inflicted by perpetrators.
Justice delayed is justice denied; timely resolution of a dispute is essential to promote victim cooperation. The financial and personal implications of engaging in prolonged court action can be extensive and can deter victims from initiating proceedings. Whilst the jurisdiction of the Magistrates’ Court has expanded to allow restraining orders to be imposed more quickly, much more needs to be done to promote a speedy procedure. Emphasis needs to be placed on pre-emptive action when dealing with this area of domestic abuse. Early intervention should be a priority in order to prevent a domestic abuse situation escalating to a point requiring police and court procedure. A system of police ‘follow-ups’ whereby patrol officers make telephone and house calls to known or suspected victims of abuse are further ways in which communication and contact between victims and the law is promoted. Engaging the victim in aspects of the court procedure, such as allowing them to have input in decisions about plea negotiations and sentencing is empowering and also acts as a deterrent, for they are less likely to be perceived as a submissive victim; rather, an individual who does not need to depend on them for financial and other reasons.
Whilst the Victorian legal justice system has adopted several strategies which attempt to assist victims of domestic abuse, improvements need to be made. The legal system alone cannot ensure that victims of crime are most appropriately assisted and supported – a multilateral and collaborative approach from a range of sectors (including the police force, communities, parliament, organisations and key stakeholders) is required. Furthermore, early intervention and policy emphasizing pre-emptive action should be of greater focus – rather than a system punishing the offender ex posto facto. The support of the community, as well as changing the attitudes and stigma surrounding this area of the law will further assist victims. The legal system must strive to reduce – if not eliminate cultural, financial, personal and other factors that hamper the capacity of women to engage in justice. Engaging victims in procedure and informing them of their rights is the most effective means of empowering women. Educating and empowering women is the way in which the vicious cycle of domestic abuse will come to an end. Therefore, whilst Victims of Crime in Victoria receive some assistance, much more can be done to support them in their dealings with justice.
VCE Student, Sienna College, Camberwell.