Domestic violence offenders no longer allowed to question victims in Family Court
"I wanted to end my life the day that our community allowed this man to cross-examine me in court."
Eleanor (not her real name) is a mother of four and a primary school teacher in regional Victoria.
She escaped an abusive relationship about a decade ago — a relationship in which she had been repeatedly raped and kicked by her partner wearing steel cap work boots.
But that was not the end of the trauma she experienced at the hands of her former partner.
"When I turned up for the Family Court hearing, I found out on the day that he had become a self-litigant, and that he was going to be representing himself, and that he was going to be given the privilege of being able to cross-examine me directly," she told the ABC.
"Why would they give someone the power over their victim like that?
"Why would they give him the right to cross-examine me in court, knowing the trauma that women have faced?"
Support services for family and domestic violence:
- 1800 Respect national helpline ph:1800 737 732
- Women's Crisis Line ph 1800 811 811
- Men's Referral Service ph 1300 766 491
- Lifeline (24 hour crisis line) 131 114
- Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277
Self-represented litigants have had the ability, in certain circumstances, to cross-examine their victims during family law matters.
But the Federal Government will today introduce legislation scrapping the practice, citing significant community concern and a desire to avoid further trauma of victims.
"There is no question that directly facing a perpetrator or alleged perpetrator of family violence compounds the trauma of that violence and can also impact on the ability of a victim to give clear evidence in legal proceedings," Attorney-General Christian Porter said.
"The [bill] will prohibit direct cross-examination in specific and serious circumstances to protect victims from re-traumatisation.
"This includes where there are convictions, charges or final family violence orders in place between the parties."
'I remember nearly running out of the room'
Eleanor's case would have been one of those covered by the new proposal.
"In the very same court room, only a couple of weeks before, a judge had actually said it was unsafe for him to be within 200 metres of me," she said.
"And then in the very same court room, with a different court, they then said it was appropriate for him to be able to cross-examine me directly.
"I can remember nearly running out of the room, and seeing people to the sidelines looking at me going 'what's wrong with her', as I was hyperventilating."
Courts would also have the discretion to stop the direct cross-examination where domestic violence was alleged, and would be required to put in place extra protections for alleged victims — including screens or video links in court rooms — where questioning was allowed to occur.
Where questioning is allowed, it would have to be done by a lawyer, including legal aid lawyers where an alleged abuser can not afford their own representation.
'People are surprised it happens': Lawyers welcome change
A meeting of state and territory leaders in October 2016 called for direct cross-examination to be banned, and was met with widespread support from the legal community.
"I do think that people are surprised, with all of our knowledge about domestic violence, that the court is a place where this can still happen," Angela Lynch from Women's Legal Services Australia said.
"It's basically using the court system to abuse your victim."
Ms Lynch said it was not a case of denying alleged abusers their day in court, but argued the practice of direct cross-examination meant the court was not getting the full picture of abuse because victims would hold back on sharing all information.
"If your abuser is asking you those questions, the victims of violence are scared about the repercussions for them, for them and their children, after the court proceedings have been finalised," she said.
Ms Lynch argued there were ongoing concerns with the announcement last month that the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court would be merged.
A wide-ranging review of the family law system is due to report to Government next March.