Eleanor (not her real name) was abused by her partner for 11 years. After she finally escaped she discovered that he could force her to suffer direct cross examination by him in family court.
The day I took the stand and was forced to answer the questions of a man who had sexually assaulted and abused me for over a decade was a massive slap in the face. Having to endure that horrific experience was a major obstacle in my recovery from the trauma of his abuse.
No person should be cross-examined by the person who sexually assaulted and beat them
Now, determined to ensure no other woman has to suffer the same invasive, disempowering and cruel process, Eleanor has launched a campaign calling on the federal Attorney-General to change the laws that make this possible.
Within 48 hours of launch, her campaign on FairAgenda.org has already attracted more than 4,000 supporters.
Key family violence and legal experts have joined Eleanor in calling for the change, signing onto an open letter (PDK link – letter reprinted in full below) calling for federal protections to be brought in line with those in place at a state and territory level to ensure family violence victims aren’t put through direct cross-examination by their abusers.
The laws need to be updated urgently. There are a growing number of unrepresented people in the family law system, which means the risk of being directly cross-examined by your abuser is now more likely than ever before.
What’s more, this process is likely also leading to poor outcomes for vulnerable children, because we know that many survivors of violence feel pressured to settle before their family law trial because they’re so afraid their perpetrator will continue the abuse in court through cross-examination.
Pasanna Mutha from Women’s Legal Services Australia
It’s been ten months since the Productivity Commission recommended the federal government amend the law to address this problem.
This is a problem which is clearly compounding the trauma of the people our legal system is supposed to protect. Attorney-General Brandis needs to act urgently to ensure this cruel process isn’t allowed to continue.
Renee Carr, Executive Director of Fair Agenda
A recent survey by Women’s Legal Services Australia identified over 250 victims of domestic violence either subject to or at risk of direct cross-examination in the family law system.
Last week Eleanor’s local MP, Cathy McGowan, took this issue to parliament – introducing a private member’s motion calling for the federal law to be updated. Her motion received support from a number of MPs, including Coalition member Karen McNamara.
Support Eleanor’s plea to Attorney General George Brandis by sign the online petition here: http://www.fairagenda.org/family_court
Open letter to George Brandis
Date: 26 October 2015
Senator the Hon George Brandis QC
Senate Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600
By email: email@example.com
Dear Attorney General
Protect victims of domestic violence from direct cross-examination in family courts
We are writing as a group of organisations that assist and speak on behalf of the most disadvantaged Australians. This is an open letter to Government calling for the introduction of legislation to protect victims of domestic violence from being directly cross-examined by their abuser in family law proceedings.
Family courts lagging behind other jurisdictions in recognising domestic violence
We have concerns that the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court have fallen behind other jurisdictions in their response to domestic violence and in ensuring that victims are safe throughout the court process.
Every state and territory jurisdiction now has legislative protections in sexual offence trials to stop an accused person directly cross-examining their victim. Similar legislative protections exist in domestic violence intervention order courts in Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory. At a Commonwealth level, legislative protections were introduced in 2013 in criminal trials for slavery and sex trafficking offences.
Domestic violence victims and their children most at risk in the family law system
Many victims of domestic violence have been raped, sexually assaulted, physically assaulted, imprisoned, abducted, had threats to kill and endured years of verbal, financial and psychological abuse. Yet the family law system fails to take the steps necessary to stop further abuse and re-traumatisation when a victim is in court, giving evidence.
Complex cases that involve domestic violence and child abuse now make up a large percentage of cases in the family courts. Given the growing number of self-represented litigants in family law, the threat of direct cross-examination affects a large cohort of victims. A recent scoping survey by Women’s Legal Services Australia identified over 250 victims of domestic violence either subject to or at risk of direct cross-examination in the family law system.
Victims of domestic violence are more likely to agree to a poor settlement in a parenting matter than proceed to trial due to their fear of being cross-examined by their abuser. This places children at greater risk of spending time with an unsafe parent. Protecting victims of domestic violence in the family law system has the flow on consequence of better outcomes for vulnerable children.
Building on positive first steps in addressing domestic violence
We welcome the Turnbull Government’s early focus on addressing the domestic violence crisis, and the positive step of funding to support victims through domestic violence hubs.
We note the strong community support for improving the response to domestic violence. Together with other advocates, our organisations work closely with Rosie Batty, who is also firmly committed to family law reform, and with other community campaigning groups focused on domestic violence issues. We note that a survivor affected by this issue has launched a campaign on this topic, available at www.fairagenda.org to highlight the scale of public support on this issue.
Bringing the family law system in step with other courts across Australia is critical to the response to domestic violence. Legislative protection from direct cross-examination is a strong and effective measure that will support domestic violence victims and ensure that good outcomes are reached which prioritise the safety and well-being of vulnerable children.
If you would like to meet to discuss this issue in more detail, please do not hesitate to contact Women’s Legal Services Australia – Heidi Guldbaek (08 9272 8855) or Pasanna Mutha-Merennnege (03 8622 0600).
Heidi Guldbaek & Pasana Mutha
National Law Reform Coordinator
Women’s Legal Services Australia
Chief Executive Officer
National Association of Community Legal Centres
Women With Disabilities Australia
National Domestic violence Prevention Legal Service Forum
Director of Advocacy
Human Rights Law Centre
Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia
Chief Executive Officer
No To Violence | Men’s Referral Service
Chief Executive Officer
Domestic Violence Victoria
Australian Lawyers for Human Rights
Australian Women Against Violence Alliance
CEO Annie North Inc
Chief Executive Officer
Federation of Community Legal Centres Victoria
Queensland Association of Independent Legal Associations Inc.
Community Legal Centres NSW Inc