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Legal dirty tricks drag out domestic victim trauma: advocates

"It's not about finding the truth": Robyn Cotterell-Jones, advocate.

"It's not about finding the truth": Robyn Cotterell-Jones, advocate. Photo: Dean Osland

''You make a second statement, I will rip your throat out''.

It was an all-too common threat encountered by domestic violence advocate Robyn Cotterell-Jones in court.

A defence lawyer was warning her what would happen if a victim produced her second statement. He would find the tiny discrepancies between it and her first statement to police - made in the emotional aftermath of a violent incident - and shoot her evidence down in a flash.

''Lawyers know how to tap into the trauma response,'' said Ms Cotterell-Jones, executive director of the Victims of Crime Assistance League. ''They'll befuddle a victim, take her over and over the same thing, criticise each word.''

It is just one of many dirty tricks and sneaky loopholes domestic violence victims are confronted by in a court system that advocates say is adversarial and even barbaric.

''It's very uneven,'' Ms Cotterell-Jones said.

''It's not about finding the truth.''

The majority of domestic violence victims surveyed by the University of Sydney last year reported having little, if any, time to talk with the police prosecutor handling their matter in court - an issue that was thrown into sharp relief for women whose partners could afford strong legal representation, researcher Dr Lesley Laing said.

''It was probably one of the worst days of my life because he was there and I had about five minutes with the police prosecutor to try to explain my story,'' one victim told Dr Laing. ''I was sort of chasing him around that morning, 'please see me', 'can you listen to me', 'please give me some time'.''

Men will commonly drag out proceedings until a victim gives in, rather than give evidence at a hearing or turn up at court to face her violent partner, said Tanya Whitehouse, chairwoman of the Women's Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service NSW.

Increasingly, apprehended violence orders are being used as another tool for control and intimidation.

Between 2008 and 2010, solicitors at the Women's Legal Service NSW noticed a ''sharp increase'' in demand for representation for women named in AVOs as a perpetrator when they were actually a victim.

In two-thirds of cases, the AVO was based on a single incident, usually a threat or a superficial injury like a scratch or bite mark indicative of a woman acting in self-defence.

Children are also used as bargaining chips to force a criminal matter into the Family Court, Dr Laing found. Family Court orders often trump an AVO from a local court.

Her 2013 research revealed a disturbing tendency among Family Court staff to think a mother is making up claims as a way of blocking paternal access to children. ''The women I talked to were met with a climate of disbelief,'' she said.

Contact service staff seemed to be particularly susceptible to the man's ability to be charming in interactions with them, Dr Laing concluded.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most victims choose not to enter the justice system. About half of all incidents went unreported.

What they encountered in the NSW courts

  • ‘‘It was rolled into a two-year experience. Basically it was an interim AVO and ... he pleaded not guilty. And it just kept getting adjourned. I was constantly at court.’’ - Victim interview, 2013 

  • ‘‘I just feel like it’s whoever has got the most amount of money sometimes. Like, he had this big barrister, Queens Counsel, or whatever, representing him in court. They were able to use anything and everything against me.’’ - Domestic violence victim interview, 2013 

  • ‘‘We had to go through three bouts of mediation which was very, very hard to be in the same room, directly opposite the table with someone who, for the last 15 years has pushed me into a corner.’’ - Family Court plaintiff interviewed for a 2010 University of Sydney study

‘‘It was rolled into a two-year experience. Basically it was an interim AVO and ... he pleaded not guilty. And it just kept getting adjourned. I was constantly at court.’’ - Victim interview, 2013 

‘‘I just feel like it’s whoever has got the most amount of money sometimes. Like, he had this big barrister, Queens Counsel, or whatever, representing him in court. They were able to use anything and everything against me.’’ - Domestic violence victim interview, 2013 

‘‘We had to go through three bouts of mediation which was very, very hard to be in the same room, directly opposite the table with someone who, for the last 15 years has pushed me into a corner.’’ - Family Court plaintiff interviewed for a 2010 University of Sydney study

 

 

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