Issue 5, Semester 2
TW: Domestic Violence
I managed to catch Bri Lee on her first day back in Queensland, where she had just returned from the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival. Above all, she is passionate about her work as a writer, which she now does full time. Yet Lee’s upbringing as a lawyer (having graduated from the University of Queensland and completed an associateship at the Queensland District Court) is not in the rear view.
“It’s no coincidence that so many writers are lawyers,” Lee says. She was drawn to writing and law for the same reasons – both are about resolving conflicts, and dealing with complex matters. Perhaps above all, both are intensely human, a characteristic of Bri’s own memoir, Eggshell Skull. Based upon the legal doctrine of the same name, the memoir is a meditation on the notion that a defendant must ‘take their victim as they find them’, a principle that Lee considers and reconsiders when reflecting on trials on sexual crime, both as a Judge’s Associate, and as the accuser in her own trial.
When asked why she wrote Eggshell Skull, Lee replied simply that Australians love reading courtroom dramas. “I wanted to write a book that regular Australians would want to read, while at the same time educating them on jurisprudence,” she says. The book rips back the covers of a legal system that is snug in its opacity, and that presents itself as an ‘alien environment’ that inspires fear rather than confidence. Is that transparency enough, I ask, or does pulling back the covers reveal even more complexity, that we as law school students struggle to wrap our heads around?
For Bri, the apparently insurmountable complexity comes from a privileged view of the law, “a hangover from a time where only land-owning men sat on juries”. Yes, law is complex, she agrees, but the criminal law isn’t so complex as to render the act of understanding impossible. We speak a little about the ‘Not Now, Not Ever’ Report, which emerged in 2015 out of an investigation into domestic violence in Queensland chaired by Quentin Bryce. The landmark report made 140 recommendations, most of which have been adopted in Queensland. Most notably, the report recommended the creation of a non-fatal strangulation offence, under which 798 people were charged in the first 12 months of the offence’s inception.
The strangulation offence keeps it simple – it is a “pragmatic thing we can do”, Lee says – and yet it reflects the stark reality of domestic violence situations, where strangulation is the penultimate act before homicide. Whether such changes will make it into Victorian legislation, or other Australian jurisdictions is still a question that neither of us had the answer to. Victoria has no standalone strangulation offence. The debate is ongoing, with senior police recommending its introduction, and, academics expressing hesitation. Lee has commended the Bryce report on its inclusivity, and hopes that other jurisdictions take a similarly comprehensive view when investigating the reform potential for law regarding domestic violence and sex crimes.
Our conversation soon turned to mental health and the law, a theme that runs through Eggshell Skull. Throughout the book emotions run high, and Lee cautions herself to keep it together, even when the tears are brimming. Sometimes she blinks them away because if she started, she wouldn’t be able to stop. Other times, it’s because she wouldn’t have time to fix her makeup before work. Her account of the painful side of law’s pragmatism strikes a chord with me, and I suspect with law school students everywhere too, who are swimming through clerkship applications, side-gigging paralegal jobs and internships, and still trying to get through their readings.
We would break down if we could - but we just don’t have the time. Lee recalls her experience as a law student as part of the University of Queensland Law Review, calling it an “incredible, wonderful experience… where we didn’t talk about law stuff”. While it’s important to have those supportive spaces, to physically and mentally keep yourself out of that ‘law school bubble’, we agree that when it comes to mental health, we all have to do the ‘heavy lifting’, as Bri calls it.
When I ask for final words of advice to law school students, Lee says: “It’s going to be a shock to the system, when you start practising – especially if you’re going into criminal law,” she says. Ditto clerkships. “It’s going to be tough, and it’ll challenge your sense of self, but that’s normal…It’s what you do with the challenge that makes you.” I pause, waiting for her to finish her sentence, but she leaves me hanging. Makes me what, I wonder?
Lee’s words smack of a courage that reverberates through Eggshell Skull. It is a kind of courage that is willing to assume the weight of injustice and work the “fumbling yet insistent arm of the law”, making it swing in our favour. There is an insistence on attributing responsibility, to perpetrators, to the legal system, and to ourselves. Might an encounter with courage be unavoidable, over the course of our legal careers? Perhaps it’s time to get used to the heavy lifting.