Why must women go unprotected from violent male neighbours?
30th Jan 2020
Shirley* is a pensioner with white hair, who walks with a cane and is hard of hearing. Her only child resides overseas with his family. Shirley lives alone in government housing with her two cats and leads a quiet life. She has never been in trouble with the law and is in fact on friendly terms with several of the local police officers.
However, the same cannot be said of her neighbour Geoff,* who resides in the apartment below and has a criminal history with multiple convictions for violence and drug use. Unfortunately, Geoff has taken a strong dislike to Shirley, who he suspects of being a police informant. So much so that three years ago he entered her flat without permission and pushed and hit her. Shirley reported the matter to police, Geoff was charged with assault and the matter went to hearing. Shirley provided evidence and Geoff was found guilty. He was given an 18-month good behaviour bond, which has since expired.
Shirley has had no further trouble from Geoff until about three months ago; while she was outside gardening he yelled obscenities and threatened her through an open window, before spitting at her. Shirley once again reported the matter to police. When police spoke to Geoff, he was recorded on bodycam freely admitting the verbal abuse and obscenities, but denying making a threat or spitting. A constable with a flawed understanding of the law determined that because the spit did not actually hit Shirley, no assault had occurred. Geoff was instead issued with an on-the-spot fine for offensive conduct. Shirley was left frightened that this would not act as a sufficient deterrent and that Geoff would go on to do more.
The police advised Shirley that they could not assist her further and that if she was still fearful of Geoff she would need to apply privately for an apprehended personal violence order (APVO). This appears to be the standard approach where conflicts like this arise between neighbours and no charges are laid, with police apparently reserving their resources for domestic violence matters. Unfortunately, Legal Aid and several community legal services also refused to assist Shirley, applying a similar rationale of prioritising the allocation of their overstretched resources to domestic violence matters rather than to the protection of vulnerable women from male violence in general. The circumstances of Shirley’s case, including that she lives alone and suffers medical conditions that are exacerbated by stress, were not considered severe enough to warrant assistance.
Ultimately, Shirley lodged the APVO application herself. When the matter was first listed before the court, Geoff was represented by a duty lawyer; aptly illustrating the priority often given to assisting male defendants over female victims within our legal system. Geoff’s lawyer indicated that the matter would be defended and that the failure of police to take carriage of the matter was an indication that the application lacked merit and should be withdrawn. Shirley was self-represented and unable to hear or understand the proceedings, but knew that she wanted the protection orders. A timetable was set for hearing.
Shirley knew that she could not manage attending court alone again and, having exhausted all other avenues, she made an appointment with her local Member of Parliament (MP). From there Shirley was referred to our office, an unfunded service staffed entirely by volunteers. We are not aware of any representations made by the MP to those responsible for this failing of our legal system. Apparently, our legal system must rely on the charity of unpaid women to fill the gaps.
This is a case study of how our legal system can fail to fulfil its most fundamental purpose of protecting the vulnerable, and also actively obstruct efforts to bring a perpetrator to account. Not only did the police refuse entreaties by our service for them to bring the application on behalf of Shirley, but it then took multiple phone conversations for them to release to us a copy of the statement they had taken from Shirley so that we could more readily assist her. Gone are the days when individuals would be given a copy of their own police statement. Clients must now be advised to obtain a copy before they sign, as extracting a copy after the event can be near impossible without a formal request under freedom of information laws (in this instance, the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (NSW)).
The police also insisted that a subpoena was required for them to release the bodycam footage in which Geoff had made damning admissions that were relevant to the case. To comply with a subpoena, the police require a flat $95.80 fee for conduct money, regardless of the financial means of the applicant or the actual expense of copying the material, which in this case would only have amounted to a matter of cents. My client found this money for the police but there was no money left to recompense our office for its work preparing, filing and serving the subpoena; answering the correspondence from the police when they chose to request an adjournment and to raise objections; and then attending court on Shirley’s behalf on the return date when the police finally produced the material.
Geoff ultimately failed to attend court on time at the mention date and the magistrate chose to make final orders ex parte. While Shirley was waiting for a copy of the final orders from the registry, Geoff belatedly turned up and became irate, using profanity to address court staff. Fortunately, the magistrate was unmoved and Geoff did not proceed to lodge a formal annulment application, so the orders stand.
While Shirley was fortunate in obtaining orders without the need for a hearing, this process was not for the faint-hearted. The subpoena form was perplexing to complete and the police and Local Court provided conflicting information by telephone in relation to service and conduct money. When the subpoena was filed in the Local Court, we dealt with a less than helpful registrar whose manner might well have deterred litigants. After the subpoena was served, the police briefed lawyers to set it aside despite the matter having already been canvassed with the officers involved. Once at court, Shirley was still unable to hear the proceedings even after we had alerted the court to her hearing impairment. It is hard to imagine how she could have successfully navigated the multiple hurdles without representation.
Male violence continues to go unchecked in a society that fails to prioritise the safety of vulnerable women and instead often obstructs those who attempt to hold men accountable for their bad behaviour. It is high time our society acknowledged the gendered nature of all violence and gave priority to the protection of women and children.
*Names have been changed.
Anna Kerr is the founder and principal of the Feminist Legal Clinic, Sydney, which works to advance the cause of feminism and champion the human rights of women and girls by providing legal support to feminist organisations, groups and services and the women who access them.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).