SARINA ANDALORO: Standalone domestic violence court could help ease scourge

Sarina Andaloro
The Nightly
Legal processes can become just another layer of domestic abuse.
Legal processes can become just another layer of domestic abuse. Credit: The Nightly

At law school, I was regularly sent to the local court to sit and observe for hours on end.

It was the most memorable lesson.

Some students — with lofty ambitions of becoming a high flying barrister or a High Court judge — found the homework dull and a drag. But for an aspiring investigative journalist, all those hours sat at Liverpool Local Court in Sydney’s west where I grew up were a fascinating study.

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The point was to observe the court process, but it didn’t take long for one thing to become clear — that some crimes are completely misunderstood by the criminal process. And when it comes to domestic violence, where mostly women are the victims, the legal process can in many ways become just another abuser.

Justice and fairness are not the same thing.

Victims sitting in the same courtroom as alleged offenders. Their fears, anxieties even doubts are forensically picked apart, and questioned.

Many leave hand-in-hand with their abusers. I have seen many taunted while sitting in court.

And for every apprehended violence order application there’s an application for an AVO reversal. Family complexities irritating a system used to dealing in black and white, a system of justice that prioritises procedure.

An adversarial court system, geared towards arguing.

We have heard these stories before. These experiences are well documented and have been the subject of academic analysis. But now we’re being challenged as a nation to understand why so many women are being killed, why domestic violence is on the rise across the nation, why our legal system seems to be failing victims and letting offenders slip away.

Sarina Andaloro.
Sarina Andaloro. Credit: 7NEWS

Local courts are the coalface for the overwhelming majority of domestic violence matters. Often the first port of call for the pettiest and the murkiest.

Matters that sometimes test our values as a society. But domestic violence in NSW takes up around 60 per cent of local court time, with more than 30,000 cases finalised last year.

The numbers are growing and the backlog is crippling. On any given day there are 60 women waiting to speak with Legal Aid.

The sad reality is that this avalanche of cases is sometimes seen as a hugely inconvenient distraction for some magistrates, who just want to get through their list and on to “more important” cases. Or to lunch.

Discussions are underway at the highest levels of government about the merits of establishing a specialised, standalone domestic violence court.

There’s a pilot program in NSW of a dedicated domestic violence court list at the Downing Centre and at Blacktown Court on certain days of the week.

7NEWS sat in on one of those dedicated DV days. There were 87 cases on the prosecutor’s desk. The magistrate, a woman, was specially trained in dealing with traumatised victims and that training shone through.

In a matter of hours, she kept a man who threatened his partner with a bow and arrow behind bars and she counselled a victim who wanted to reconnect with her abusive husband in jail.

The focus was firmly on the victims, not the process. It was a different courtroom.

Maybe a brand new type of courtroom will lead to different outcomes.

Sarina Andaloro is a 7NEWS investigations reporter.

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