Dear Reader: Domestic violence & Facebook

In considering why a man accused of domestic violence might be stripped of his constitutional right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty at a fair trial, Judge Albie Sachs (in a 1999 Constitutional Court judgment) sought guidance from various authorities on the subject. It is clear from the authorities he quoted that what they all have in mind, when speaking of domestic violence, is ongoing, serious violence – or the threat of it – in the intimate, often hidden context of a “domestic relationship”.

So American authority Donna Wills states that “domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women, a major factor in female homicide, a contributing factor to female suicide, a major risk for child abuse, and a major precursor for future batterers and violent youth offenders”.

South African author Joanne Fedler talks of “intra-family” offences, that include arson, assault,  threats to do bodily injury, obstructing justice, cruelty to children, incest, kidnapping, murder, culpable homicide, rape, forced prostitution, unlawful entry on to property, malicious damage to property, stalking, theft, robbery, unlawful possession of a firearm, involuntary sodomy, extortion, blackmail and sexual assault.

Any magistrate or legal practitioner that rates a man threatening to “unfriend” an interfering ex-girlfriend from his Facebook page on the same scale as the offences listed above is exposing himself and the law to ridicule.

Judge Sachs’s understanding of the nature of domestic violence is fairly mirrored in public perception: when most people hear that a man has been served with a “restraining” or “protection” order in terms of the Domestic Violence Act, they immediately visualise a pathetic woman bruised and beaten to within an inch of her life, surrounded by weeping, traumatised children – and somewhere skulking in the shameful shadows, an out-of-control, violent, probably drunken brute.

The stigma that attaches to such an order is probably only paralleled by a charge of paedophilia.

The law was designed to provide emergency relief to women in imminent danger of life-threatening physical or ongoing emotional abuse by someone with whom they are, or have been in a “domestic” relationship. Police and magistrates are empowered to come to the immediate aid of such women by issuing interim protection orders without prior notice to the accused person.

Interim orders in terms of the Act are,  therefore, issued pretty much on the woman’s say-so. Which is all the more reason why those entrusted with carrying out the law must do so sensibly and with great care.  Inter alia they must take care to ensure that the reasons advanced by the applicant are not frivolous, and that the problem, if there is one, might not be solved in a way less prejudicial to the accused.

It has been disconcerting to discover that there are a growing number of cases where the legal “short cuts” provided by the Domestic Violence Act, and the stigma that a domestic violence order carries, have been abused by unscrupulous lawyers and vengeful, “scorned” women to punish or blackmail their ex-lovers or, more often, as a cheap and nasty way to gain leverage in a divorce action.

The weakness in the system that unscrupulous lawyers have found and are exploiting is really a failure in the administration of justice: too often the police charged with processing these charges, have so little interest in them that they simply rubber stamp any statement that is handed in by a woman who alleges she is “fearful” because she has been “threatened”, without making any attempt to establish the nature and seriousness of the threat, or to establish just how real and imminent the danger might be.

Too many magistrates are in turn  routinely endorsing the applications by issuing “interim” protection orders – the interim nature of the order offering them an “out”: why, a man wrongfully restrained need simply come to court on the return date and have the order set aside! Never mind the scandal and reputational damage he will undoubtedly have suffered in the meantime. And the legal costs involved. And all the postponements in a congested court system, so that, in the real world, it could be months before he gets his day in court.

Even more serious: in the process they are trivialising domestic violence and, ultimately, undermining public confidence in a law that was enacted to deal with a really terrifying and all too pervasive social problem. Our cover story on page 10 is, in my view, as shocking an example of the trivialisation of domestic violence as you’re likely to find – not to speak of the terrors that lurk on Facebook!

The Editor

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