Family and domestic violence survivors are 'being failed'

Sydney International Women's Day rally in 2020. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Workers and lawyers in the field of family and domestic violence, including Tony North QC, who chairs the Victorian Law Reform Commission, addressed an online forum on September 14 exploring the limits of the justice system.

The Justice for Women in Rape Cases forum was hosted by the Geelong Women Unionists Network (GWUN) and March4Justice Geelong, in partnership with the Geelong Regional Library Corporation.

North addressed the shortfalls of the court system, which is failing to provide sexual assault victim-survivors with adequate redress, he said. He added that  the court system often re-traumatises people because of unnecessary and drawn-out legal processes.

North has been overseeing a report into the response to sexual assault on victim/survivors, which will be released later this month.

He said as many as 80% of sexual assaults go unreported and very few cases that are reported to police even make it to court. He described this as a “bleak picture” because it means around 80% of perpetrators are never brought to justice.

Sue, a victim support coordinator, said women are reluctant to come forward because the cross-examination process in court can be traumatic and demoralising. She said the adversarial system of justice does not work. “All that is required for the case to be thrown out is for a lawyer to cast a small shadow of doubt.”

North agreed, saying the adversarial system of law tends to work against women as it makes them feel that the burden of proof sits with them and not the perpetrator. He suggested judges and lawyers undertake competency training.

Adele Welsh, GWUN co-convenor and president of Geelong Trades Hall, highlighted how ending family and domestic violence involves economic equality for women.

Welsh, a community services worker and member of the Australian Services Union, said women are underpaid because they still largely find work only in industries where their work is undervalued. She also highlighted how First Nations women disproportionately experience family violence and yet the funding for services designed to help them leave violent relationships is continually being cut back.

Welsh said absences from work due to family violence and carer responsibilities also contribute to women receiving lower pay rates, and to them being more likely to return to a violent relationship and retiring into poverty.

Nareeda Lewers, a lawyer at the  at the Royal Melbourne Institute for Technology, told the forum that women are turning to alternative forms of justice. She assists victim/survivors to confront their perpetrators .

The panellists agreed that the majority of victim/survivors know the person committing the crime. All agreed that the legal system urgently needs to be changed to assist those seeking justice.