Issue 3, Semester 2
By Geordie Wilson
Content warning: Domestic Violence
I recently had the chance to meet with an interstate friend who’d flown to Melbourne in order to attend a hearing with Senator Louise Pratt. Senator Pratt is on the ‘Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee’, sitting on behalf of the lower house shadow A-G. I headed to the committee’s setup in a hotel on little collins street, and whispered hello to my mate, who was in deep concentration transcribing the hearing for their boss. Listening in, the hearing was more interesting than i’d expected.
Before the committee was a group of exasperated stakeholders. The issue in discussion was preventing alleged abusers from directly cross-examining victims of family violence. The witnesses were Legal Aid, Women’s Legal Service Victoria, a community legal centre, and the Australian Lawyers’ Alliance (ALA). They were being asked their ability to meet obligations under a proposed legislative fix.
‘Absolutely no capacity’ they responded. The spokesperson for the Women’s Legal Service Victoria seemed to be stringing out this emphatic response out a little bit, so as to be polite to the committee. Legal Aid added; “We’d have to underdeliver on our other obligations, we’re already overstretched,” and “There is no money to implement this”.
Senator Ian Macdonald then put to the witnesses the idea of providing representation for alleged abusers, but only during cross-examination. Legal Aid protested the idea, saying preparation needed for an effective cross examination would make it similar in cost to fully representing a client. The ALA interrupted to add that there would be issues finding lawyers willing to do such work, for both ethical and professional indemnity reasons. Even after all four witnesses strongly objected, the tone of the committee’s questioning was such that it seemed as if the idea of partial representation was still being genuinely entertained.
The language used by the committee was also odd. One such example was Victorian Senator Jane Hume’s questioning about the difference between full and partial representation. The questions 'how many partial units vs full units could be provided?', and 'How many units were there per year in which a cross-examination problem occured?' were abnormally detached, as was the tone of questioning. It was more suited to an economics lecturer discussing ‘widgets’ than a discussion of family violence entailing issues of ethics and justice.
The money issue was then put away to discuss the unfunded solution’s merits. After being given the chair, Senator Pratt raised that the solution proposed would create an imbalance, as legal counsel for victims would remain unfunded. Then followed some inquiry about how many people don’t confront abusers at all, due to being unable to find legal representation. Legal Aid stated that this issue is substantial due to a large number of people being unable to afford legal advice, despite also failing Legal Aid’s means test.
The most confronting moment of the hearing was an impassioned statement made by a family law legal aid practitioner. This lawyer had apparently had enough with the line of questions thus far. She interrupted Senator Jim Molan saying “Excuse me senators may I have a word?” to which he replied ‘go ahead’.
The witness said: ‘With respect, Senators, I have been in this industry for three decades. Nearly every five years, it seems we have a hearing on this issue. Each time, we reach the consensus that family law, especially family violence, is an area that is in desperate need of government funding for legal assistance. With respect, at each hearing our sector says the same thing with respect the great need of funding for family law and things don’t end up being fixed. I expect to be here again in five years’ time saying the same thing if nothing is done about what is going on.’
Maybe this is what it usually looks like when difficult social issues are inquired into, legislated away, with no money given to back it up. The witnesses were exasperated, the senators seemed detached, and the hearings on the legislation didn’t reach a good outcome. It was a cynical experience to see family violence dealt with by the committee in the way it was last Wednesday.
Geordie Wilson is a third year JD student and the online editor of De Minimis.