In 2012 the Legal Services Board funded Loddon Campaspe CLC to offer legal support to local women experiencing family violence and to undertake research into their hopes and aspirations from the legal system.
Now, three years later, we have published Will somebody listen to me? This report outlines the experiences of local women who participated in 190 court-based surveys at Bendigo, Echuca and Maryborough, Kyneton and Swan Hill Magistrates’ Courts. Twenty seven women later agreed to in-depth interviews.
You can read an Abridged Version of the report (including our recommendations) here.
To download a Full Copy of the full report (only available online), please click here.
Our Starting Point
This project recognised that the justice system often fails to meet the needs of women and children experiencing family violence, their communities and offenders. It understood that the least we can do is to listen to women’s stories and to use those stories to improve the justice system’s response to family violence. Throughout the project and the final report, the voices of the women who spoke to us come through loud and clear. The report charts the journey undertaken by these women through family violence legal proceedings and gives voice to their experiences.
Women need to have their rights heard. Hopefully this research will help that. If enough women put their hand up and said ‘Hey, we should be heard and we should have our rights listened to’, then something might happen. Fran
The women we spoke to told us that Victoria needs to improve the justice system. But we need to go further. Offenders must be held accountable for family violence, but so must communities that tolerate, ignore or encourage family violence. And prevention must always be a priority.
The women we spoke with told us that they wanted the justice system’s responses to family violence to be founded upon a better understanding of the meaning, nature and dynamics of family violence. Gender inequity, the crux of gendered violence experienced by women when the offenders are men, must be challenged.
I want to change this for every woman, just a normal thing that women and children should be safe. I don’t know how it got all confused. Men should protect us. Cordelia
Every one of the women we spoke to had been the victim of violence perpetrated by a male. The women told us what they wanted from intervention orders and talked to us about their experience of the legal system. Our in-depth, semi-structured conversations explored their hopes, experiences, difficulties and outcomes.
Most of the women we spoke with were disappointed with the impacts of the legal protection they received. However most women felt that, provided they could access long-term support and receive timely information, they would still recommend seeking legal assistance. In the absence of other options, it can be a step in the right direction. Many of the women told us that they hoped this research would improve justice outcomes for other women and their children so that what had happened to them would not happen to others.
Why is it so?
Women living in rural, regional and remote Victoria told us how the justice system works for them and how it fails them. They identify gaps and barriers as well as those elements in the system that make them and their children feel listened to, understood and respected, and improve their safety and health and social outcomes. Because we spoke with women from outside metropolitan Melbourne the research draws out the acute and unique experiences of women in rural and regional locations.
It is such a lot of work, you have to do the hard yards, have to prove that your basic rights are being violated, and you just want to get on with your life. Why is it so? Cordelia
The report examines every aspect of Victoria’s family violence legal system from the perspective of those for whom it is intended to protect. It examines how police and the Magistrates’ Courts handle family violence cases and how legal services work with their clients.
The report will feed into Loddon Campaspe CLC’s submission to Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence. Together, the voices of these women and the stories they tell will help Victoria develop more responsive and effective legal responses to the needs of women and children experiencing family violence.
Loddon Campaspe CLC thanks and honours those women who had the courage to talk openly with us about their experience. Their strength, integrity and compassion were inspiring.
Where to from here?
So, what did women tell us that they wanted? They wanted:
- their concerns for their safety to be heard and respected
- their children to be safer (for those who had them)
- the offender to acknowledge the harm he has done
- the offender to change his behaviour
- community disapproval of the offender’s behaviour
- to begin to heal from the harm that has been caused.
In our conversations, women also prioritised the prevention of family violence, which along with a sense of offender accountability and community accountability would enable them to begin to heal from the harm caused to them.
The women identified with key issues and themes raised in other research, notably:
- inconsistent and/or low police accountability in the family violence intervention order application process and investigation of breaches or contraventions of the intervention order
- lack of offender accountability
- inconsistent responses from justice practitioners
- infrequency of responses encouraging women’s rights of control as to the legal outcome
- inadequate addressing of the needs of children in the justice response
- need for a strong shift in community attitudes to occur so that violence is not acceptable
- need for improved multi-agency systemic integration in the justice response, family violence prevention and offender accountability programs
- inadequate crisis and long-term affordable housing for women and children
- issues and themes peculiar to regional and rural justice systems, such as lack of anonymity, accessibility to courts and court privacy and safety
- inadequate understanding and recognition of the different forms and continuum of family violence by the community and justice practitioners.
As well as reinforcing the observations and findings of others, the women in our project identified themes that are not so well researched elsewhere, including:
- limitations of the law, and lack of monitoring and evaluation of the justice system
- lack of longitudinal studies of the impacts of intervention orders
- seeing family violence justice outside the narrow spectrum of ‘victim and offender’, encompassing children and community in the justice needs and response
- justice as honourable and restorative for these women, with a time frame and monitoring system that reflects and acknowledges the odyssey of their family violence experience
- the women’s definition of safety, which is about an absence of fear rather than a mere lowering of exposure to violence
- women crafting their own strategies to keep themselves (and often their children) safe when the justice system fails them
- the potential, where women seek it, for the use of restorative justice processes in family violence matters.
The first component of the research was a short survey that identified the women’s expectations of the legal outcomes they were seeking and briefly explored their experiences at court. They were asked if they would be willing to participate in a follow-up in-depth conversation to explore whether they were satisfied by the legal outcome and whether or not the justice needs they had prioritised in the survey were met. The follow-up interviews were conducted four months to two years after the legal process had concluded. This allowed the women to reflect on the impact of intervention orders.
The project aspired to empower the women to become advocates for change if the opportunity arose. Fortunately, the women had a number of these opportunities to have their voices heard in other significant settings during the period of research. The high rate of recruitment demonstrates that many women wish to relate their lived experiences of family violence and their experiences of the justice system.
So it was a big process from being so controlled and scared to getting my own power back to have the courage to do this. It takes a bit of time for you to realise that you can take your own power back. Cordelia
The women participated in the research because they wanted to be part of a collective voice advocating systemic change in addressing family violence. They wanted what happened to them not to happen to anyone else, they wanted a different landscape free of violence for them, their children, and the community. They wished women to be better informed and they hoped to inspire women to take a stance against family violence.
The experiences of the police response in this region varied greatly. Some women commented on the efficacy of police response. However, as the women explained, due to increasing demands on the police – with an increase in family violence reporting, under-resourcing and lack of capacity of frontline officers to respond to family violence as guided by the Code of Practice – many women reported negative experiences of their respective police responses.
If the police can’t do anything nobody else is going to be able to do anything. They are there to serve and protect so if they can’t do anything who is? Kirsty
The police need to hear these stories without judgement, regardless of what they are perceiving. Ally
The women found the court process daunting to different degrees due to various combinations that involved:
- not being adequately informed of the process
- not feeling understood by court staff, lawyers and magistrates
- feeling intimidated by the feeling of heavy authority
- not feeling safe
- feeling emotionally overwhelmed
- being in an alien environment
- little or no privacy
- being given no time to feel comfortable to disclose their lived experience and rationally analyse their and their children’s options to make informed decisions.
We went in there [court] as complete amateurs, knew nothing about the system, knew nothing about anything and that’s what it’s been like all the way through. We just clawed our way through in the dark. Margaret and her mother
The courts need to stop burying their heads in the sand, hoping that this epidemic of family violence will go away. Beryl
The women reported a lack of offender remorse, monitoring of his behaviour and behaviour change in their justice responses. This lack of offender accountability and subsequent lack of restoration experienced by the women are very significant injustices felt by the women and at times also their children.
He won’t acknowledge the harm he has done, he is not accountable for anything he has done. He always blames someone else for things that are his fault, he never says sorry that is my fault, I did that … Kirsty
I need him to say I’m sorry. He needs to say it to the kids as well. He never said I’m sorry to any of us, never, and I’ve asked for him to apologise and he won’t. Christine
Unfortunately, many women saw the community as complicit in the continuation of family violence by not challenging the offender’s behaviour. This was seen to be fuelled by fear or indifference and/or holding ‘small town’ attitudes that misdirected shame and judgement towards those experiencing family violence rather than those perpetrating it.
… family violence is not okay you know, the acceptance of the community of this kind of violence, that is not okay, the community has to hold people accountable as well. Cherie
A very significant focus of the women’s decision making in their struggle for justice was what they felt was best for their children in their individual family context in terms of safety and well-being, and also restoration. In some cases the focus was also on strengthening relationships between the children and the offenders (fathers) and between the children and themselves.
The court systems are failing our children. Helen
The violence got worse. It accelerated and got more violent to the point where I was concerned for my life and the children’s lives. Cordelia
The women showed that the provision of information, support, advocacy and referral to other community supports can be significant to women pursuing rather than abandoning efforts to access legal protection and to optimising the chance of their and their children’s restoration from the harm they have experienced.
I definitely wouldn’t have gone for an intervention order [without support of family violence services]. I would probably would have fallen straight back into his trap and gone back home. Agnes
… the support worker knew the system. Oh my God, that was key to me … you know what to say, what not to say. Carrie
Impacts of the legal process
While some women were clear either that there were certain benefits from the legal process, or that that the whole experience left them more vulnerable, many women had mixed experiences of the legal process. None, however, had their justice needs of offender accountability or restoration met. Many women spoke of a litany of issues that had arisen for them as a result of seeking legal assistance. They described their fear, isolation, health issues, financial pressures, sense of grief and loss, injustice, lack of self-belief, exhaustion and guilt.
Now after what I went through to get the intervention order in place, I understand why women drop their intervention orders all the time. A number of times I thought this is crap, what is the point, just drop it. Kirsty
The women were clear that safety was not just a reduction of exposure to violence, but a complex state defined by the absence of fear brought about by offender accountability, and change in behaviour and confidence in the justice system being accountable and effective in its implementation. Women explained how they crafted their own safety strategies when the justice system was ineffective, the most common strategy being to change locality.
You know knowing that all these police and that are there didn’t make you feel any safer. They don’t make you feel any safer, because they don’t understand what it is like [to be there as an applicant in fear of the offender]. Marie
Sense of injustice
The women felt a huge sense of injustice as a result of their experience of family violence and attempts to seek the protection of the law. Many women also had to leave their homes and some women had also lost connection with their children and/or their communities, who had chosen to support the offender. Some women felt their access to justice was impeded by not being able to afford a private lawyer, or being eligible for a grant of legal aid.
He mentally abused me and the kids for nearly eight years and it’s not on, he was violent with things and in my case he’s got away with it all. He got away with it. And he’s laughing at me. That’s not fair. Sophie
Accountability of the justice system
Threading through the research were failures of current justice practice and limitations of the law in addressing family violence. There was also a low accountability of the justice system, in that there is an absence of modes of monitoring and evaluation that hear the voices of women using the system. Some women argued that improved family violence multi-agency systemic integration6 would improve this accountability and justice outcomes for women and their children.
We will be screaming for change for a lot longer Ann
The report makes a number of recommendations in relation to offender accountability, police practice, children’s justice needs, accommodation, support services, court structures and practice, community accountability, gender equity, hearing the voices of women and their children, Government commitment, multi-agency systemic integration and restorative justice.
How can (when it is gendered violence) men possibly know and feel what women feel? Isobel
This three-year project was evaluated by Dr Liz Curran, Senior Lecturer Australian National University. Dr Curran made this comment on the project: “It has provided a venue for women’s experiences of violence, the court system and the legal process and support system, to be heard… led to a greater understanding of family violence service, referral pathways and the role of the law and family violence orders with health and allied professionals.”
The evaluation noted that the project filled a large gap in services for women and children and saw court representation expanded at a number of regional courts. Outreach services were also provided in areas where there was previously little or no service available for people experiencing family violence.