New approaches needed to stem domestic violence
-Magistrates’ conference told

Stabroek News
May 18, 2003

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Domestic violence legislation can be a ‘blunt instrument’ if it only focuses on incarceration as punishment for offences of violence against women, and clearer alternatives to this option need to be considered.

This is the opinion of Sir Dennis Byron, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) when he spoke at the Magistrates’ Conference held at the Tower Hotel yesterday. His presentation was entitled, ‘The Implementation of Domestic Violence and Family Law Legislation lessons from the OECS.’

The conference provided a forum for the discussion and examination on how the Domestic Violence Act of 1996 could be effectively implemented by the various players in the judiciary and society in general. The participants included a number of magistrates and judges, social and women’s organisations, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and senior officers from the Guyana Police Force (GPF).

Byron said the court needed to be given a wider range of effective options so that perpetrators could be held accountable for their actions. He said many women did not use the court process or did not co-operate with the police in prosecuting the individual because of economic dependency on that person. “While we want to send a clear message about the criminality of domestic violence, we need to have an approach that recognises and reconciles the victim’s need for protection, the victim’s need for economic support and society’s need for accountability,” Byron stated.

The nineties, Byron said, saw law reform throughout the Caribbean in the area of domestic violence. This reform, he said, had led to an extension of a host of protective reliefs to those who experience domestic violence. He noted, however, that there had been less progress on sexual harassment, sexual assault and the controversial evidential requirements in relation to rape in particular.

He added that the general consensus among officers involved in resolving family disputes was that the ordinary judicial system was inadequate. Many of the issues that have to be addressed need the support of social services that are integrated into the adjudicative and remedial process.

Many countries did not have legal aid and advisory services, the need of which far outstrips the demand, Byron said. He added the absence of lawyers might affect the fairness of the process and the adequacy of the resolution to the individual litigants because of the insufficiency of evidence.

Byron made the point that an important function of the judicial service was to provide for continuing judicial education, which was in keeping with international norms. This exercise should not only be for professional adjudicators, judges, magistrates and registrars, but also the whole range of services that support the judicial function.

In outlining the OECS judicial reform project, Byron pointed out five indigenous components. These were procedural reforms, administrative reforms, the introduction of technology and the improvement of the quality of judges and court structures.

Apart from this project, the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court has also spearheaded the Family Law and Domestic Violence Reform Project.

Chancellor of the Judiciary Desiree Bernard, during her presentation, pointed out that many acts of domestic violence went unreported and undetected for many reasons - embarrassment, protection of the family name, financial deprivation, frustration, feelings of resignation, lack of choices and in some cases the conviction that marital vows or conjugal duties included occasional corporal punishment. Bernard made mention of some legal systems giving husbands the right to chastise their wives and engage in forced and excessive sexual acts.

Abused women sometimes felt pressured into pursuing cases when all they desired was that the abuser receive a stern warning, she said, adding that when such cases did reach the courts, the abused women were badgered and humiliated by defending counsel or other judicial functionaries which might give rise to feelings of remorse at having initiated the charges. These women, Bernard noted, might also face ostracism by relatives and friends of the abuser.

She made the point that young police officers in most countries did not receive any training whatsoever in handling and investigating reports of domestic violence and sexual molestation. There needed to be training in relation to attitudes displayed towards victims who would be in a state of shock or hysteria after an attack.

Bernard said the act was of equal importance to women who were victims of domestic violence at whatever stage in life. Elderly women, she said, were often victims of children with whom they live and on whom they depend for financial and emotional support.

She said the time had come for countries to take action to remove the scourge of violence against women in their communities. She added that although legislation itself would not solve this multi-faceted problem, it would provide a platform from which women could launch an attack on domestic violence. She concluded that legal remedies alone were insufficient and must go in tandem with a change in attitudes to gender-specific violence.

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