CANBERRA – This month, in Papua New Guinea’s national parliament, a special parliamentary committee on gender-based violence conducted public hearings and invited submissions to gain evidence on the breadth of problems and steps that could be taken to combat them.
These hearings followed a national summit on gender-based violence in November 2020, which added to growing momentum to improve the justice system’s response to domestic violence and domestic violence complainants.
The incidence of domestic violence in PNG, and gender-based violence more broadly, is believed to be amongst the highest in the world. But evaluating the scale of the problem is hindered by a lack of robust and reliable data.
A notable exception to this lack of research is an in-depth study undertaken several years ago that examined domestic violence cases in the Boroko District Court. The study is a good example of what can be revealed through careful data collection and analysis.
The National Court and the District Court are the two main trial courts in PNG dealing with criminal offences. District Courts hear generic violent offences such as common and aggravated assault.
In 2018, District Courts across PNG dealt with more than 14,000 summary offences and approximately 6,000 committal hearings to the National Court.
In 2016, 50% of all new registered summary offence cases at the Boroko District Court were domestic violence cases and, of these, more than half were assault cases.
Yet, the majority of domestic violence cases were struck out by the court due to the non-appearance of complainants and defendants. In addition, warrants for the arrest of defendants were rarely executed.
Data from the Boroko District Court indicated that domestic violence cases were being struck out when:
- defendants failed to appear
- police failed to execute bench warrants of arrest
- complainants (survivors) failed to turn up for mentions or otherwise showed little interest in their case
- complainants withdrew support for the prosecution case.
The study examined what lay behind these outcomes.
In cases where the defendant failed to appear, it found that the police seemed 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 their non-appearance.
Where complainants failed to turn up to court, or when they withdrew their support for prosecution, the study found a number of factors at play, such as lack of awareness about the court process, including about the legal consequences of having the defendant arrested and charged.
The complainants’ withdrawal of support for prosecution was also attributed to fear of retaliation, concern about the financial consequences of having a defendant gaoled where they were the sole breadwinner or because the defendant had already paid compensation or had promised to do so.
In response to these findings, the study made a number of recommendations for consideration by District Courts and other relevant justice stakeholders:
- collation of detailed monthly statistical reports enumerating the work of the court.
- preparation and publication of awareness materials (information sheets) for court users, particularly for domestic violence criminal and civil proceedings.
- creation of a dedicated domestic violence court in Port Moresby to hear civil and criminal DV cases.
- provision of training, mentoring and upskilling of magistrates and staff, including on the criminal justice process, data entry and collation, and victim rights.
- fostering closer cooperation in the delivery of justice services to vulnerable groups.