As a family law solicitor, it heartens and inspires me when I read and see the wonderful lawyers, counsellors, social workers and support workers who deal every day with the ‘cold face’ of domestic violence. They are the unsung heroes who have to provide protection and resources to women who have suffered the physical and emotional scars of partner abuse.
It is equally horrendous to read other reports in the media which suggest from time-to-time that domestic violence is somehow class related or belongs to any certain groups of people. These journalists need to take a reality pill and wake from whatever dreamland they have been in. Domestic violence isn’t a fortune and a disease, it does not discriminate. It happens and occurs as regularly in intact families as it does in separated families. It occurs in wealthy, well-to-do families and does not just occur in lower socioeconomic groups.
The fact that a woman lives in a mansion on the river with a successful Husband and family does not mean that domestic violence cannot occur in that environment. In fact, it is in those environments that domestic violence is often harder to recognise or accept.
As a family lawyer who works almost exclusively with property matters, I have direct exposure to family violence occurring in the homes of wealthy people. In my view, family lawyers have a responsibility to be on the lookout and to see the warning signs of any existence of domestic violence in matters they are involved in.
As lawyers, we sometimes inadvertently end up acting for a violent client who has inflicted violence upon his female partner. As family lawyers, we have a duty to our client but also to the Court. Our duty to the client who has been the violent perpetrator in my view involves taking positive and meaningful and practice steps towards assisting that person in rehabilitation.
If society is to minimise and lessen the impact of domestic violence then the men who engage in it need to be treated and shown there are other ways to express their feelings then through violence.
I have had first experience of this and thought I would share this story involving a recent client of mine. He was a very successful and still is a very successful businessman of not inconsiderable wealth. During the early part of the matter, I found myself becoming very friendly with this client as he had a very outgoing and engaging personality. His matter was not one that was bitterly fought but it involved a fair amount of tension with property, parenting and maintenance disputes all on the table.
During the matter, however, a Domestic Violence Application was also made by his former Wife. As family lawyers (when acting for males) we tend to have a preconceived idea that a lot of these Domestic Violence Order Applications are made as a tactic in children’s matters and that there is no real violence. I have learnt firsthand that such preconceived thoughts are dangerous.
My thoughts were no different when my client was dragged into the local Magistrates Court for the first return date of the Application. There weren’t too many details of violence at that stage that were revealed other than a couple of incidents that occurred recently around the separation. I stood in Court and strongly told the Magistrate that my client denied any allegations and we sought that the matter be set down for trial as soon as possible. The matter was set down for a one day trial about 8 weeks later. It was at this Court Hearing that I started to have some concerns about my client. I noticed that his Wife turned up with quite a number of support people who surrounded her. My client became suddenly shy and reserved at this Court Hearing. At one stage I couldn’t even find him in the building. I went around outside and found him hiding behind the back of the building. When I asked him what was wrong he said that he was very nervous seeing his Wife and he didn’t like to go to places like this. It took some coaching by me to get him to come inside.
After the hearing, he told me he was going to the men’s room but then I discovered he had exited the building as he drove off and I heard his car (a very expensive sports car) speeding off at high speed outside of the Magistrates Court.
I rang my client several times that afternoon to ask if he was okay. He didn’t get back to me.
It was about a week later when I was able to speak to him. He seemed upset and agitated about having to go to Court.
For some reason, something inside my head told me something was wrong. I said to my client that I wanted him to go and see a counsellor I knew. This counsellor had speciality in anger management and other issues especially concerning males and there is also a number of very good counsellors out there who know how to deal with, talk to and counsel men effectively who have some anger issues. I wasn’t sure he had a violent issue but I certainly detected some anger and anxiety.
Most men, when I suggest they go to counselling, reject such an idea. In this case, however, my client agreed and the counsellor undertook some counselling. About a week later the Counsellor rang me and said that they had permission from my client for the counsellor to talk to me about the client’s issues. What then followed was a revelation to me about the fact that my client had perpetrated both physical and mental abuse upon his Wife over a long period of time in their marriage. The counsellor revealed some graphic details to me. The client had become concerned about entering the courtroom because the client was scared that several of the police officers within the courtroom would recognise him because of their regular visits to the matrimonial home even when they were so-called ‘happily married’. The counsellor then indicated that they were recommending a long therapy program of anger management and other counselling to assist my client with his issues. I then met with my client and he was able to honestly reveal a lot of the details to me about the violence that had occurred.
The lawyer on the other side was not even aware of it. The Wife had been concerned about revealing anything of her Husband’s behaviour for fear that the children would find out and think of less of him. The Wife had found the strength to leave him but not the strength to tell anyone.
Suddenly, things became a lot clearer for me – earlier in the mediation, the client had indicated a reluctance to even spend much time with the children. He said that he was sad and the children would see him later. He now said to me that he wanted to see his children properly and he wanted to fix his behaviour. Not only was I shocked but also cynical about how someone like this could improve or could change the way which they lived.
The client then undertook a long process of extensive counselling to keep working on anger management.
My client decided on advice by his counsellor that he would have very little time with the children while undergoing this process.
My client agreed to full acknowledgement of his past behaviour and agreed to ongoing counselling as part of Parenting Orders and agreed to the slow process of the children spending time with him. He said he wanted to do this. This was in circumstances when his Wife was not insisting upon such Orders – he said he wanted to do it because he understood the impact of his behaviour would have had upon his children when they were young and when they are together.
Being a family lawyer and not keeping contact with most of my clients, although I do understand that he has happily re-partnered and draws a relationship with his children. This event highlighted to me as a family lawyer, the fact that domestic violence can exist anywhere and even where you don’t suspect it exists.
However, more importantly, it shows that a positive can be done to help these men who inflict such violence and suffering upon their female partners.