Press for Progress: Bri Lee on women in the justice system

For International Women’s Day our authors are writing about movement towards gender parity and the challenges ahead. Here Bri Lee writes about her Press for Progress in the legal industry, and the huge hurdles faced by women in seeking justice.

I write this reflection at a time when only about six people (apart from editors and publishers) have read my forthcoming book, Eggshell Skull, and every single one of them remarked on (amongst other things) the ‘timeliness’ of its publication. That it would be an important part of ‘the conversation’. They used words like ‘movement’, and someone said to me ‘zeitgeist’.

My book is a memoir of how sexism in Australia effects our legal industry and justice system, and so they are right. In this book I chart a turbulent course from idealistic to disillusioned to determined. I go to trials as part of my job as a judge’s associate, and at the end of it all I find myself in my own trial.

The small number of people who knew about my trial in December last year similarly commented upon it being ‘the right time’ to take a stand against the man who committed a sex crime against me. What I remind myself, however, is that when I began work on Eggshell Skull over three years ago, and when I first made a police complaint and the investigation began, it was not yet ‘good timing’, and it was awful. Even with this ‘movement’ supposedly so full of empowerment and understanding rolling up into and through 2017, my ordeal nearly broke me.

This International Women’s Day we try to #PressforProgress. To me, that means no other woman ever having to seek justice without it being ‘the right moment’. It means that the way we seem to be improving how we listen to and act upon sexual harassment and assault complaints needs to become the norm.

The legal industry is in a unique position to be able to #PressforProgress. As with science and medicine, our professions are built upon the presumption that we are constantly learning from what has come before us and striving to do better. We don’t put leeches on people anymore and husbands are no longer legally entitled to sex with their wives whenever they demand it (though we stopped that leech-related barbarism well before Queensland called a rape a rape in the 1980s.)

Yet it baffles me to meet so much resistance to change from within the law. I’m the first to admit that it’s a chicken-and-egg question of society or the law being responsible for progress, but surely the #MeToo movement, Tracey Spicer’s investigations, and even the commission into child abuse in the church all suggest we have a societal push strong enough to justify some legislative reform in the space of sex offences.

During my time working in the legal system, why did I see women cross-examined about being on the contraceptive pill when they were making complaints about rape? Why are barristers allowed eight opportunities to veto people (usually women and young people) from being called to sit in a jury? Case attrition is highest before the prosecutors even see the files, so why don’t we know more about when and where police decide whether or not to proceed with a sex offence complaint?

The courts are clogged—clogged—with sex crimes, and yet only a tiny fraction of women offended against ever make a complaint, and only a tiny fraction of them make it to trial like I did. The average rate for not-guilty pleas in criminal cases is about 30 per cent, but it jumps to 70 per cent for sex offences. #PressforProgress means figuring out how to lower that 70 per cent to more like 30 per cent and avoiding putting complainants through trials. I have done it. It is cruel and harrowing. I don’t want anyone else to ever have to do it.

I suspect a lot of the content in Eggshell Skull will be dismissed by senior legal professionals precisely because I represent this ‘movement’. I am young and impatient, and I’m a bit loud too. But the trouble is, not many people have seen the law from both sides and not many people from within the legal industry are willing to speak out about its less attractive angles. I think Eggshell Skull will make some people mad, and combined with my advocacy work for legislative reform, I think it might get some traction. I also hope other survivors connect with it and get something out of it.

The title is a legal term. The ‘eggshell skull’ principle dictates that ‘you must take your victim as you find them’. Normally it’s used with reference to a weak complainant—if person A strikes person B once, but person B has a skull as thin as an eggshell and dies, person A is still responsible for the result. This book is about the opposite also being true. I had the support of my partner, my family, financial stability, and I knew the system. The man who offended against me had to take me as he found me: an angry feminist who wasn’t going to back down.

Photo credit Alana Potts

Did I also have the benefit of a ‘movement’ behind me? Possibly. Let’s #PressforProgress and make sure that everyone, from now until the end of time, does too.

Bri Lee is a Brisbane-based writer currently specialising in memoir, narrative non-fiction, and journalism. She is also the Founding Editor of the feminist magazine Hot Chicks with Big Brains and runs regular events associated with the magazine in Brisbane. After graduating from law at the University of Queensland she worked as a Judge’s Associate in the Queensland District Court. In 2016 Bri left the legal industry to write full-time after receiving the inaugural Kat Muscat Fellowship. Her first book Eggshell Skull will be published in June.

Read more from our authors about the Press for Progress, and check out our IWD reading list:

Press for Progress: an IWD Reading List

Banner image courtesy Bidgee

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