Rough justice for victims too scared to testify against abusive partners
BY:NATASHA ROBINSON From: The Australian
ABORIGINAL women who are victims of violent domestic clashes have been sentenced to jail in regional NSW after retreating from their claims against their abuser – a trend that has sparked calls for an urgent review of police handling of false accusation cases.
The Weekend Australian has uncovered 20 cases in which 19 indigenous women and one 17-year-old girl from towns stretching from Walgett to Wagga Wagga were prosecuted after retracting the substance of police statements made immediately following an alleged domestic incident.
Three of the women were sentenced to prison – one for a period of 18 months – by country magistrates. The sentences were later overturned by a higher court.
The cases fly in the face of a recently rolled-out domestic violence justice strategy for NSW, which aims to ensure “victims have confidence in the justice system and are empowered to participate”.
One woman, 44-year-old Allyson Sullivan, from Gilgandra in the state’s central west, has taken the extraordinary step of speaking out publicly about her conviction on a false-accusation charge and the way it destroyed her faith in the justice system.
Ms Sullivan endured 20 years of violent assaults at the hands of her defacto partner, who at the height of the abuse threatened to cut off her fingers, and had locked her and her children in a car and then set it alight.
The mother of three was given an 18-month jail sentence – the second harshest for a false-accusation charge in recent NSW judicial statistics – after retracting her allegations of abuse against her partner.
“I feel that I was failed,” Ms Sullivan said. “I don’t have any faith in the police whatsoever anymore.”
Two other women were given five-month jail terms after being convicted of public mischief charges, also sentences that were among the harshest recently recorded. Those sentences were also overturned.
The 20 cases have come to light after the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT – alarmed after recently defending a woman who was sentenced to prison for retracting her evidence against a violent partner in court – undertook a review this month of its Western Zone case files.
The cases were prosecuted between 2006 and last year across the Castlereagh, Chifley, Darling River, Orana, Griffith and Wagga Wagga NSW local police commands.
Fifteen of the women were charged with public mischief offences under section 547B of the Crimes Act NSW. Four of the women and the 17-year-old girl were charged with making a false accusation to police under section 314 of the Crimes Act.
Fifteen of the women pleaded guilty and one had the charge dismissed under mental health diversion legislation. Of the four who pleaded not guilty, three were acquitted and one was fined.
A spokesman for NSW police defended the service’s handling of domestic violence cases: “In determining the appropriateness of charges relating to domestic violence incidents, the NSW police force gives careful consideration to such things as the vulnerability of the victim, the power imbalance that often exists in the domestic relationship and the pressure, actual or perceived, to which the victim is often subjected. Falsely accusing a person of a crime is a serious offence, and the NSWPF will take appropriate action where this has occurred. In all cases, the public interest is paramount.”
NSW Attorney-General Greg Smith and Director of Public Prosecutions Lloyd Babb declined to comment.
The ALS NSW/ACT case review also turned up extraordinary examples in which women had been refused certificates of immunity from prosecution in court, and one in which a magistrate failed to warn a woman who gave evidence that she had lied to police against incriminating herself. In that case, the magistrate, now-retired Howard Hamilton, later told the woman who had retracted the substance of her allegations in court that police may pursue action against her, despite expressing at the same time “significant doubts” that the mother of one was telling the truth when she claimed she had fallen over and injured her face rather than been punched.
In many of the cases, police cross-examined victims in court, alleging their retractions were false and the abuse incidents had indeed happened, but they later laid charges that relied on those very retractions.
ALS NSW/ACT chief legal officer John McKenzie said Aboriginal women making domestic violence allegations were highly vulnerable. “It is wrong-headed public policy and risks a real miscarriage of justice to prosecute them solely on the basis of the retraction of an allegation of domestic violence,” he said.
Nicholas Cowdery, who was NSW director of public prosecutions between 1994 and 2011, said he believed all state jurisdictions should follow the British example and refer false-accusation allegations to senior figures within offices of the Director of Public Prosecutions for review.
“It is not an appropriate response to automatically act upon a retraction of a complainant,” said Professor Cowdery, now a visiting fellow at the University of NSW.
“In these kinds of cases there needs to be greater examination of the circumstances behind it or reasons that have led to it.”
Academic Robyn Holder said community pressure and tight social bonds made it particularly difficult for Aboriginal women to proceed with domestic violence prosecutions.