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‘Victims continue to be failed by the justice system’

The Australian criminal justice system needs to go further in protecting victims of family and domestic violence, said this prosecutor and future Columbia law student.

user iconLauren Croft 19 December 2022 Big Law
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Abi Rajkumar is a Crown prosecutor from the Northern Territory who is striving to make a tangible difference to victims and offenders in the justice system through evidence-based progressive policy. She’s also one of the recipients of the 2023 General Sir John Monash Foundation scholarship and will study at Columbia University next year. 

In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Ms Rajkumar, who plans to study an LLM — master’s of law, said that she is passionate about the law because “it is the most powerful tool we have to change lives for the better”.

“Victims continue to be failed by the justice system as it stands because there are very few opportunities for their voices to be heard within the justice process, and for victims to be involved in restorative justice outcomes. Victims are further failed by a system, especially here in the Northern Territory, where the recidivism rate within the prison populations is greater than 70 per cent, and very little is done to actually rehabilitate offenders and to address the root causes of crime.


“In Australia, many offenders are individuals that have been failed by public policy and the law in some way — and then not given adequate opportunities to address their offending outside of incarceration as punishment. This reflects a broken system — where victims, the general community and offenders themselves are failed. I am passionate about the very clear opportunities that exist to make a real and lasting impact on the way in which our justice system works — and the way it affects people’s lives,” she said.

“Understanding the law and exploring both the theory and practice of the law will enable me to be an effective advocate and a significant contributor to justice policy and system change. Changing the system for the better will create safer communities, support victims, and allow individuals an opportunity to turn their lives around and become contributing members of our society.”

Very little has been done to address domestic violence offending at the outset, according to Ms Rajkumar, who said that creating new offences, and increasing maximum penalties has not proved successful.

“An overworked judge, a new defence lawyer, a tired prosecutor, an Aboriginal woman living in poverty trying to calm her baby as she waits for her husband to appear on the screen, a victim sitting at home still traumatised from a break-in that took place two years prior, with no idea the offender is before the courts — this is a typical Wednesday in Darwin’s Local Court,” she explained.

“The rigidity of the law has proven to not always lead to the outcomes intended. It is integral that the law takes into account the myriad, diverse and expounding number of elements that makes us all human and affects the way in which we all go through life. Domestic violence across the country has led to lives being taken by perpetrators, victim-survivors being let down by the system, and children and families forever affected by the significant trauma that flows from such offending.”

To drive real change in this space, more progressive policies are needed, Ms Rajkumar emphasised.

“Within this extremely complex area of law, progressive justice policy, to me, means taking into account the very real need to address behavioural and anger issues, psychological issues and existing trauma. It means recognising that what lies at the centre of all domestic violence is complex relationships and notions of love that will never be able to easily fit within the bounds of black letter law. It means recognising that forcing victim-survivors to give evidence against their partners when they do not want to, or do not feel safe to, may mean they do not turn to authorities in a time of need,” she added.

“It means recognising that a cycle of short sentences in custody with no access to programs that lead to integral insight, and the revolving doors of our prisons is not doing anything to protect our community and victim-survivors in the long run. It means accepting the importance of investing in evidence-based programs and facilities that work to help people address the issues that lie at the heart of their offending — and opportunities for victim-survivors to have their voices heard and to be given the support they need.”

Restorative justice, Ms Rajkumar explained, is also “vital” to ensure victims’ voices are heard within the criminal justice system.

“This could be in the context of a victim-offender conference, where within a safe and controlled environment, victims are able to explain to offenders how their actions have impacted them, and offenders are able to respond and to apologise, and together, work on an outcome plan that is just in all the circumstances,” she said.

“Restorative justice conferencing exists to a small degree for youth matters, but it should not be disregarded as an important and effective tool in ensuring victims get some closure and important input into what happens post offending, and for offenders to be held accountable in a more personal and human way which is often not the case when a judge simply tells an offender they are going to prison.”

Despite this, Ms Rajkumar noted that there have already been a number of improvements to benefit victim-survivors of family and domestic violence.

“Opportunities for offenders to go to residential rehabilitation programs to address underlying alcohol and drug addictions, and to attend men’s behaviour change programs to begin to provide insight into their behaviour and why they act the way they do, are an important reprieve and glimmer of hope for victim-survivors,” she said.

“The alternative of periods of incarceration followed by offenders being let back into the community having had no access to programs, and to support in addressing their behaviour, creates far greater risks for victim-survivors and the community.”

However, moving forward, the legal profession can be doing much, much more to ensure increased access to justice for victim-survivors.

“The legal profession is bound by government policies and laws. However, it is important that defence lawyers and prosecutors alike use their power and privilege within a broken system to do what they can to ensure just outcomes — and outcomes that will lead to changing lives for the better,” Ms Rajkumar added.

“It is just as important for defence lawyers to do what they can to ensure offenders have insight into their offending and are given every opportunity to better themselves, as it is for prosecutors to support effective interventions and to realise that incarceration is not always the best result for victim-survivors and the community alike.”