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‘Are you here for an intervention order?’ When domestic violence finds its way to court.

Once, domestic violence matters were dealt with a day a week in Frankston’s law courts. Now, such proceedings can fill four days. Annie Blatchford trails one duty lawyer through the trials and tribulations of those coming before the bench.

Words and picture by Annie Blatchford
 
Tara Bressan works two days a week on domestic violence matters in Frankston.

Tara Bressan works two days a week on domestic violence matters in Frankston.

“Ticket number P56 please proceed to counter one.”

He approaches clutching a folded piece of paper.

“Are you here for an intervention order?”

He says yes, nodding at the crinkled white square in his hand.

People in suits and uniforms hustle around him. The vending machine rattles. Babies are crying. Other lost-looking men and women are filing in through the sliding doors.

He hears his name and is called into a room.

The room is Tara Bressan’s office for the day, a small haven away from the frantic waiting room of the Frankston Magistrates Court. Ms Bressan has been with Victoria Legal Aid since 2000, and in Frankston practicing family law since last year, where she spends two days of her working week at the courts working as a duty lawyer. It is her job to listen to story after story about acts of family violence between girlfriends and boyfriends, mothers and fathers, parents and children, and to help negotiate a path forward.

Today is one of the four days a week dedicated to the processing of family violence intervention orders. On Mondays, the court administers police applications, Tuesdays is for applications made by victims, Wednesdays and Fridays can be a mix of everything. Ten years ago family violence matters took up just one day a week.

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Ms Bressan says the significant increase in family violence cases has elevated the issue on everyone’s agenda, with the State Government recently adding $30 million over four years for prevention programs and support for women and families at risk.

This morning the clerk has given Ms Bressan police applications for intervention orders to be taken out against two men. She holds one piece of paper up and points to the paragraph that explains what happened over the weekend — kicking, punching, hair pulling and property damage are some of the allegations listed by the police. Ms Bressan says she often meets with men who may not have been home since the incident.

She predicts that there will be at least 50 matters today and she won’t get the chance to help everyone. She’s one of the two duty lawyers who see people who can’t afford legal advice. The second lawyer is from the Peninsula Community Legal Centre, who will be advising the victims today. Ms Bressan will be meeting with the alleged offenders.

Graham* is her first client. He is a tall, strong looking man with rough hands. His collared shirt looks barely worn and hangs on him untucked, sleeves unbuttoned. She asks him about his race, language, health, employment and then she asks, what happened?

Ms Bressan says understanding the relationships that are being portrayed is always challenging. To make sense of the story she spends the day running in and out of her office, speaking with clerks, police, lawyers and social workers. Sometimes she finds herself chasing different services and government agencies on the phone. She smiles: “This is all sounding very complex but I guess I do it every day so it’s just – bang!”

Ms Bressan explains to Graham his options. Her client stares back at her wide-eyed, hanging on her every word. He can consent to the intervention order even if he doesn’t agree with what is said about him in the application. Or, he can contest it. Ms Bressan explains that choosing the latter path will involve more court dates, possibly taking months.

Graham says the story isn’t true. “I only pulled her hair,” he protests. 

Ms Bressan is quick to respond.

“The definition of family violence is very broad,” she says in an attempt to make clear that hair pulling is not OK.

He says his partner suffers from bipolar disorder. He says she’s pregnant. “It’s all a big mess,” Graham mutters.  He asks Ms Bressan again and again: “What do you think I should do?”

The duty lawyer’s next client looks half the age of Graham and yet his hands are just as rough. His eyes are just as wide. Callum* has a baby girl with his girlfriend. She claims he pushed her into a wall, breaking through the plaster.

Graham acknowledges that his behaviour was inappropriate. “I know that was not right,” he says, but he still can’t shake the feeling of being misunderstood. “No one ever wants to hear my side of the story,” he adds.

He has had enough. He says she has depression, anxiety and alcohol issues. That she “always loses it when she’s drunk”. He’s not going back. He just wants to be able to see his child.

Jason* is broad shouldered and seething with frustration. He talks about the “AVO, IVO or whatever you call it” with a certain familiarity. He has had an intervention order taken out against him previously by the mother of his five children.

The police have applied for an intervention order to protect Jason’s eldest child from her father. He says he didn’t mean to leave the mark on the back of her leg. She was acting out and he was just trying to shock her as a “last resort”.

Brett*, a large but boyish looking man, has a mental disability and so does his girlfriend. The police application says he tried to strangle his girlfriend. He holds his hands up to Ms Bressan in protest, revealing his long finger nails: “Wouldn’t I have torn up skin if I strangled her?”

He says his girlfriend has spent time in hospital. Child Protection recently took their three-month old baby from them. He is on a pension.

Ms Bressan sits perched on the edge of her chair, leaning across the desk as she seeks to help her clients one-by-one to understand more clearly their predicaments.

Her message is universal: “That behaviour is not appropriate,” she tells Graham, and then Callum, and Jason and Brett.

Although their violent actions are played out within a tangled web of health, social and financial struggles, Ms Bressan says it is their behaviour that must be addressed.

“Even to get them to think about their behaviour is a step in the right direction … it sows a seed,” she says during a break in her day.

Graham acknowledges that his behaviour was inappropriate. “I know that was not right,” he says, but he still can’t shake the feeling of being misunderstood. “No one ever wants to hear my side of the story,” he adds.

Ms Bressan replies: “Have you considered counselling? So you don’t have to feel alone.” Counseling is just one of the many services on a duty lawyer’s referral list.

In between meeting with clients, Ms Bressan maps out some of the myriad service pathways that she can draw upon. They can include Lifeworks or the Family Relationship Centre for counseling and behavior change, the Peninsula Drug and Alcohol Program if there are substance abuse problems, the Crisis Assessment Team, who deal with people suffering mental health issues, and the Salvation Army or Hanover for those at risk of homelessness.

Ms Bressan lets out an exasperated laugh. “It’s not just law. If we approached it as just law – what would happen to these people?”

Bearing the emotional strain of dealing with such personal and often tragic stories can be an occupational hazard, but one that Ms Bressan consciously guards against: “I like to run marathons,” she quips. A mother of three and seemingly always racing against time in her work, she says she has found running to be a good release.

On top of this, Victoria Legal Aid provides support and specialised family violence training for all its lawyers. Ms Bressan recalls a session conducted by the male-focused family violence service No to Violence, which emphasised the need to build good relationships with male clients while at the same time not colluding with them or condoning their violent behaviour.

A man and a woman come in from the same waiting room, through the same door and sit in the same row of chairs. The victim and her attacker stand shoulder to shoulder while the magistrate reminds the woman to contact the police if her partner breaches any of the terms of his new order.

Ms Bressan spends most of the day trying to negotiate terms in the intervention orders to make sure they are realistic. She says tailoring the intervention order to the client’s situation can prevent the men and women from returning to court because of a breach that could have been avoided.

Graham wants to know whether his girlfriend is going to keep their baby. Ms Bressan arranges with the police and his partner’s lawyer to allow Graham to text his girlfriend but only about the baby. Ms Bressan pauses: what if she does keep the baby? She amends the order again so Graham can contact the victim about seeing the child she might have while his 12-month order is still in place.

Callum is worried he will have trouble getting access to his child. Ms Bressan comes to an agreement with the police and victim’s lawyer that he can make contact, but only about his daughter. She gives Callum an example of a text message that would be acceptable: “Can I see Amy* at 5pm on Saturday, pick up from McDonalds?”

The police are pursuing a full order against Brett that will exclude him from his home. Ms Bressan is opposing this because Brett can’t afford to pay for accommodation on top of the rent for his home. His girlfriend can’t afford to pay the rent either. She has said she doesn’t want a full order and that she made the allegations up. Now it’s up to the court to decide.

Today, the magistrate sits in Court 3. 

Two names are called over the public address system. A man and a woman come in from the same waiting room, through the same door and sit in the same row of chairs. The victim and her attacker stand shoulder to shoulder while the magistrate reminds the woman to contact the police if her partner breaches any of the terms of his new order.

Now, Callum is called. He is told to stand at the bar. He looks confused and goes to the witness box. He is corrected and pointed towards a row of seats behind a wooden desk. 

The magistrate asks: “Are you representing yourself?” Callum looks around the room for Ms Bressan. “I guess so?”

The magistrate proceeds and reads the orders without Ms Bressan, who has been advising another client and is shocked to discover that she hasn’t been given a chance to get to the court room to represent her client. Another order is made and the tower of applications is one page lighter.

Another two names are called. The men look bewildered and at times seemingly unaffected by the orders being imposed on them.

Eventually it’s Brett’s turn. The magistrate says he cannot make the full order that the police are requesting. He says he doesn’t have the power to intervene in private relationships against the parties’ wishes.

The police are concerned Brett’s girlfriend is taking back the allegations she made on the night of the alleged incident because she is feeling threatened by Brett.

The couple leave the court together.

* Names have been changed.

** Annie Blatchford is an employee of  Victoria Legal Aid.

► If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.

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