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Attitudes to victims of domestic violence.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Late last week comments made by a magistrate in Wollongong, John Seabury(?), sparked outrage in the community. Magistrate Seabury made some comments about the victims of domestic violence after he'd heard a domestic violence case. He said, and I quote him:

I'll never understand the stupidity, or should I say the idiocy, of women who get beaten up and then, contrary to orders, go back to live with the offender.

He went on to say:

They must like that sort of treatment. However, that doesn't justify what happens.

Well, those sentiments have angered women's groups across the country and the New South Wales Attorney-General, John Hannaford, is currently investigating the incident. Now, Magistrate Seabury isn't the first magistrate to be criticised for his comments from the bench. This morning I am joined by the ACT Chief Magistrate, Ron Cahill.

Now, Mr Cahill, I know you can't speak specifically about Mr Seabury's words because they are the subject of an investigation, but what was your reaction when you heard them reported?

RON CAHILL: Well, first of all, if I could say, Elizabeth, obviously I don't want to get involved in that chivaree because I know the matter's being investigated, but obviously it demonstrates a lesson for everyone in the position of magistrates - not only Magistrate Seabury but all of us in that position - that you have to be very careful that you don't make off-the-cuff comments that are inappropriate and possibly offensive. But I don't want to tie that comment to any particular thing that's been said for obvious reasons.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: I guess in recent years, and months even, we've had comments similar to these being made by judges and magistrates in several States around Australia. Do you feel that that demonstrates that there is a problem?

RON CAHILL: Certainly it's something that needs consideration and a number of organisations - benches and individual judicial officers - have been undergoing discussion, exposure and consideration of these very sensitive issues, because after all we're standing there in a very public and pivotal situation, judging very sensitive and difficult issues.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Do you think, then, Mr Cahill, that our magistrates and judges need to be retrained, in a sense? Do you think that some of them are a little bit out of touch with the general society?

RON CAHILL: I don't know if retraining is the word, but I think we all need to sometimes sit back and reflect what we say and consider whether it should have been dealt with in a different way or whether we should have been more circumspect and sensitive about what we've said, as well as getting to the appropriate attitude which is the underlying and very important question.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: I guess in the end it boils down to a debate, I guess, whether it's just a way for a magistrate to voice his or her frustrations at what they continually see, or whether it is in fact reflective of an attitude that they have which the majority of people might think needs to be changed.

RON CAHILL: I think that's a very perceptive point, if I might say so. It is very frustrating and worrying, not only for magistrates but everyone involved in this very difficult issue of domestic violence, that you do in your own judgment feel sometimes that people make the wrong choices and dangerous choices, and you're very concerned for them. And when things do go wrong, if we could just simply accept that these things happen and be very concerned that we haven't been able to stop the violence, it can really lead to a frustrating situation.

But again, and I don't want to tie my remarks to anything John Seabury has said because that's a separate issue, you've got to be very careful that you don't offend, you don't stereotype and you don't criticise where criticism probably isn't warranted, but rather give voice to an understanding of the difficulty of the situation, and perhaps most of all be constructive in the sense that you might attempt to stop the violent situation arising, rather than criticising someone after an unfortunate incident has occurred.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Mr Cahill, I guess the criticism has always been that the magistrates are, in a sense, out of touch. Do you think there's been any evidence of that in comments that have been made in recent years by Australian judges and magistrates?

RON CAHILL: Well, I think the problem is that there are many, many comments made and very few chosen upon, and of course the difficulty always is that without offending anyone it's always difficult to judge what's occurred without being there and without knowing the full context of the comments. But certainly I think we need to be much more sensitive and perceptive about the way we deal with these matters to avoid this sort of situation arising. But, more importantly, I'd hate to think that we train or educate a group of judicial officers to make the right combinations of words and really don't make sure we have the attitudes right. I mean, it's one thing to learn to be able to use the right form of words. The real issue is: Do you have the right attitude and judgment in dealing with matters?

ELIZABETH JACKSON: When you look around at your colleagues both in Canberra and in other States, are you satisfied that they do have the right attitude?

RON CAHILL: Well, it would be presumptuous of me to make that judgment. I don't think it's possible to make that judgment. Even the people themselves sometimes, it's difficult for them to judge whether they have the right attitudes or conduct themselves in the right way. I believe, in the vast majority of cases, they do, and I think the way to safeguard against difficulty is to ensure that continuing discussion, continuing debate and seminars are conducted in respect of domestic violence matters in the judiciary, particularly in the magistrates court, to ensure that the best efforts are made to make that happen, and also vigilance is kept to check up on those cases where it's felt inappropriate comments have been made.

And, in respect of that, I'm confident that's happening. I know the magistrates in Canberra are frequently attending seminars and continuing legal education areas where the concepts of domestic violence are frequently discussed, sentencing problems are debated and I think we're very much across here the difficulties. And I know that's a continuing process.

I'm on the Council of the Australian Institute of Judicial Administration and we conduct at least one seminar a year where domestic violence issues are discussed and sentencing problems of domestic violence are discussed, and I anticipate that will happen again later this year when we conduct our next seminar in Adelaide to which at least one of my magistrates will be attending, as is our custom.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Mr Cahill, let me just ask you about domestic violence in Canberra. We have some statistics that have recently been released, and statistically speaking, they suggest that every day 2.5, two and a half women seek a domestic violence order in the ACT.

RON CAHILL: I think it would probably be higher than that, Elizabeth. I mean, that's an average. I mean, very frequently we have more than two or three women seeking orders. I mean, it's a fairly regular occurrence and part of our judicial life and my court's life that involves that at our Childers Street complex every day.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: That's incredibly high, isn't it?

RON CAHILL: It is. I'd love to be able to talk to you and say: Well look, it's only happening rarely. But unfortunately I can't report that the figures are decreasing.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Why is that, do you think, Mr Cahill? Why is it that we seem to have such a high rate in the national capital?

RON CAHILL: It's very difficult to say that we're higher than anywhere else, but I think perhaps part of the reason might be that we have a very good domestic violence crisis service here and we have a relatively centralised system which perhaps makes it a little bit easier for people to take action, but that's oversimplification. Whether it's actually higher in Canberra, the incidence of domestic violence is higher in Canberra than anywhere else is a very difficult issue for me to comment on. I'm not an expert in statistics. But, regardless of comparative figures, there's a problem there and we're attempting to address it. I mean, the real difficulty is: How do you solve the underlying problem of domestic violence? All the court can do is act appropriately and give relief to people who make applications. But whether that in itself, while it's an important part of the system that fights domestic violence is enough, or there's another question, I think, really, somehow we've got to solve the whole problem, the underlying problems of domestic violence rather than doing it at the sharp end, if you like.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Mr Cahill, we'll leave it there. Thank you very much for your time this morning.