Law, Social policy | The Pacific

18 June 2021

Despite growing support in Papua New Guinea for addressing domestic violence, the lack of data on the progress of justice system reforms is inhibiting more effective policy responses, Tracy Ganaii, Judy Putt, and Sinclair Dinnen write.

In Papua New Guinea (PNG), the incidence of domestic violence (DV) and gender-based violence more broadly is believed to be amongst the highest in the world, but evaluating the scale of the problem – and responding to it effectively – remains difficult in the absence of robust and reliable data.

In May 2021, a special parliamentary committee on gender-based violence invited submissions and conducted public hearings to better understand the issue and take positive steps to address it. These hearings followed a national summit on gender-based violence in November 2020, which added to the growing momentum in PNG to improve the justice system’s response to domestic violence and DV complainants.

But meaningful evaluation of variations across time and different geographic areas, as well as the impact of reforms, remains difficult. For example, while the Family Protection Act 2013 introduced specific offences for DV and breaches of family protection orders, we do not know if prosecutions on these charges are increasing in the courts. 

A notable exception to this lack of knowledge and relevant research is an in-depth study undertaken several years ago by Waigani Committal Court magistrate Tracy Ganaii – lead author of this piece – that examined domestic violence cases in the Boroko District Court, a busy urban court in Port Moresby. 

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This is the first and only study of domestic violence cases in PNG’s district courts and provides important insights into aspects of the criminal justice process, as well as factors beyond it, that can influence the outcome of judicial proceedings and the experiences of DV complainants. The study is an example of what can be revealed through careful data collection and analysis. 

In 2016, 50 per cent of all new registered summary offence cases at the Boroko District Court were DV cases and, of these, more than 50 per cent were assault cases. Yet, the majority of DV cases were struck out by the court due to the non-appearance of complainants and/or defendants. In addition, warrants for the arrest of defendants were rarely executed.

In cases where the defendant failed to appear, the study found that the police appeared unable or unwilling to hold defendants in custody, citing the common practice of what is colloquially known as ‘snake bail’, where defendants are released without proper bail procedures being followed. 

Such irregularities typically involve police officers releasing defendants on payment of bail but without issuing a receipt or providing any date for when the defendant has to return to court. The inability of police to identify defendants or transport them to court was another reason given for non-appearance of defendants.

Police failure to execute bench warrants was attributed to various factors such as not knowing the defendant’s residential or work address, lack of personnel or transport to effect the warrant, defendants fleeing the jurisdiction, and the police officers undertaking the arrest not being notified about the bench warrant or not having received it at their police station.

Where complainants failed to turn up to court, or when they withdrew their support for prosecution, the study found that there were a number of possible factors at play, such as lack of awareness about the court process, including about the legal consequences of having the defendant arrested and charged. 

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Fear of retaliation by the defendant, concern about the financial consequences of having a defendant incarcerated where they were the sole breadwinner in the family, and/or because the defendant had already paid compensation or had promised to do so were also among complainants’ concerns. 

In response to these findings, the study made a number of recommendations for consideration by district courts and other relevant justice stakeholders.

The primary recommendation was that there be collation of detailed monthly statistical reports enumerating the work of the court so policymakers can better understand the impact reforms are having over time.

There is also a clear case for authorities to create awareness materials about the justice system, particularly for domestic violence criminal and civil proceedings. In order to be most effective, the study found that these materials should cover what a person should do and where they should go when an act is committed against them, what happens at the police station, and what happens at the court.

The study also recommended the creation of a dedicated DV court in Port Moresby, based on safe court principles, to hear civil and criminal DV cases. This should be done in conjunction with the provision of training, mentoring and upskilling of magistrates and staff, including on the criminal justice process, data entry and collation, and victim rights. The recommendation to establish a dedicated DV court was reiterated during the public hearings before the recent special parliamentary committee on gender-based violence.

Finally, the study found that justice services, including government agencies such as the police and non-government organisations such as specialist family and sexual violence services, should foster closer cooperation with vulnerable groups.

The study provides rare insights into the day-to-day challenges facing complainants and the magistrates working to prevent DV, as well as providing recommendations to help overcome them.

It also demonstrates the value of building an evidence base to better understand how those involved in DV cases interact with the PNG justice system. Systematic evidence, collected at a local level, would enable better assessment of important reforms, such as the Family Protection Act, and give policymakers the tools to ensure DV survivors are supported in the justice system.

This article is based upon a paper published by ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its ‘In brief’ series. The original paper can be found here.

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