WHAT PRICE JUSTICE
On 5 December the Victorian Law Reform Commission forum on 'Homicide
in the Context of Violence Against Women' is almost certain to conclude
that the criminal justice system has institutionalised laws and
attitudes that seriously compromise the rights of women before the
law. So, what was Robert Richter SC thinking when he told a legal
gathering that having testicles was an impediment to promotion in
the legal system under Attorney General Rob Hulls? Does anyone seriously
believe that our legal system, either in the promotion of women
lawyers or its treatment of women victims, is biased against men?
So embedded is the anti-female culture of the legal system that
the new Chief Justice Marilyn Warren recalled in her 'Promoting
Difference' speech in May 2003 how she'd once been shunned by a
'misogynist client' on the grounds of her gender. This poses a serious
question. If the legal setting is so discriminatory, why does the
glass ceiling faced by women lawyers rather than the culture of
blame borne by women victims stir a female silk's passion? When
the victim's a girl from the suburbs or when a victim's family cries
foul it passes without a murmur. Why, for example, has no one questioned
Justice Warren's decision to banish the family of murdered 17-year-old
Luke Collins to the gallery of her court earlier this year?
Collins had been stabbed to death at Northland in 2001 and his
family had chosen to wear blue ribbons to a pre-trial briefing in
honour of his memory. The next day they were confronted by police
and security men who told them they were banned from the body of
the court. Despite the family's good character and their impeccable
behaviour Justice Warren claimed her decision was 'in the interest
of the smooth operation of the courts
family has no role in the proceedings.' When Collins' sister, Frances
Duncan, protested in writing to the Chief Justice of the Supreme
Court, John Harber Phillips and the Director of Public Prosecutions,
Paul Coghlan, she was told it was Justice Warren's prerogative.
Unfortunately, such stories are not rare.
Contrary to the myths perpetrated by defence lawyers and some judges,
victims of crime are not irrational rednecks intent on revenge.
More often than not they are thoughtful, decent people seeking nothing
more than civilised justice. So why is it that supposedly intelligent
men and women in wigs so often offend their sensibilities? And why
is that when the court transcripts are scrutinised, so often they
reflect the very misogyny about which Chief Justice Marilyn Warren
opined in her May speech?
In that speech, Marilyn Warren praised the Attorney General for
his 'affirmative action programme in the appointment of women as
judges and magistrates.' Nowhere did she add her weight to the intense
community and legal disquiet that has confronted Hulls' refusal
to pardon convicted murderer Heather Osland. Although there was
undisputed evidence that Osland's husband, Frank, had abused and
raped her for fourteen years, and that her son David had struck
the blow that killed him, Heather Osland received a fifteen-year
gaol sentence. In a verdict that astonished everyone and led so
many to point to deep misogyny in the law, her son was found not
guilty. So much for the Attorney General's commitment to women!
Marilyn Warren does not have a public profile for speaking out
against the anti-female assumptions of criminal law and the now
discredited defence of provocation. Sadly, the pioneering work of
barrister Jocelynne Scutt aside, female barristers have done little
to rectify the institutionalised discrimination against women victims
of violent crime. Whilst it might be argued that the entrenched
views of Robert Richter and the boys of the Criminal Bar Association
have made such progress difficult, it remains a disappointment.
If Robert Richter's public quip about testicles was so humiliating
it caused Felicity Hampel SC to leave in protest, she might like
to imagine what it's like for a family barred from court by the
Chief Justice elect or what it's like to hear a judge allow a defence
that effectively blames a woman for her own murder. The community
doesn't just need women on the bench. It needs women with the courage,
not just the intellect, to challenge the deep prejudices that the
boys have exploited in the interest of an acquittal. It does need
women prepared to 'stand up and be counted', as Warren said in her
speech. However, we want them to stand up for the human rights of
all people, victims and their families, men and women, and of course
the defendant. Until such time the jury's still out.