Witness: An investigation into the brutal cost of seeking justice by Louise Milligan deserves its place on the Stella short-list (2021). Witness provides a frightening account of what it can mean to be the complainant in a sexual assault case.
Few people report sexual assault to the police. Fewer still take their case to court. It is almost impossible for alleged predators to be found guilty. This book makes clear why this happens in Australia.
Louise Milligan exposes flaws in the system. She demonstrates it as callous, sexist and ‘weighted towards the rich and powerful’. She calls for change.
Victims of a sexual assault cannot conduct their own case. They cannot engage legal representation. Instead, they act as a mere witnesses for the prosecution, the State. Already vulnerable men and women are thus denied the right to protect themselves from further abuse by legal professionals. Frequently, the court experience re-traumatises them.
The accused, on the other hand, can employ and instruct the best lawyers available. Defence lawyers can do whatever they think necessary to ensure their clients are acquitted. They can intimidate and threaten witnesses. They can also confuse, insult and gaslight them.
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that occurs in abusive relationships. It is an insidious, and sometimes covert, type of emotional abuse where the bully or abuser makes the target question their judgments and reality.
Witness author Louise Milligan
Louise Milligan is an accomplished investigative journalist. She has had many years of Court reporting experience. She currently works on the television programs Four Corners and 7.30 Report at the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Her first book, Cardinal, the Rise and Fall of George Pell, was awarded the Walkley Award for Best Non-fiction Book (2017).
In Witness, Milligan discusses three court cases in depth. Interspersed with her research, incisive interviews and comments, the cases reveal Milligan’s deep knowledge of sexual assault cases and legal processes.
While this may sound dry and dull, the author’s skill as a writer resounds through the book. Louise Milligan is passionate about her topic. It shows in every paragraph. Her reporting of court cases reminds me of the writing of Helen Garner, one of my favourite authors. Here are the links to two reviews of Garner’s work: ‘Killing Daniel‘ and Consolation.
Earlier this year, the then Australian Attorney General Christian Porter commenced defamation proceedings against her. She published an article, in which he was not named, on 26 February 2021. He says the article made false allegations against him.
Legal cases in Witness
Milligan discusses many cases in this book. However, three major ones stand out. Each witness suffers through the interrogation they face.
The first concerns an inexperienced eighteen-year-old. Saxon Mullins was sexually assaulted in an alleyway behind a nightclub in Sydney’s Kings Cross. Her life changed for ever. The legal case lasted five years. A jury convicted her assailant. A judge acquitted him. An appeal court questioned the judge’s decision. The case remains in legal limbo.
Saxon’s interrogation by the ‘silk’ (a Queens Counsel Barrister), hired to defend the son of a rich man, makes harrowing reading. He addresses this young woman as ‘Madam’ throughout, trying to make her appear older.
Milligan quotes him:
As a defence barrister in a sex trial, the last thing you want the complainant to come across as is some sort of young, naive girl…You want to neutralise her as a human being.
He intentionally confuses Saxon. He asks her repeatedly to explain anatomical terms which she does not understand. She becomes distressed and overwrought. The rape she endured caused great harm. Her experiences in court repeatedly forced her to relive that night. As well, she experiences abuse and dehumanisation caused by the barrister’s questioning..
In the end the case hinges on the question of consent. The accused rapist says he thought she had consented to the crime he perpetrated in a dark alley-way.
The second case is one in which Milligan herself appears as as the ‘witness of first complaint’. A complainant had told her about an encounter with George Pell he experienced as a child. It is the first time he has spoken about it.
Milligan dreads the witness experience. She knows what to expect. The night before, she sleeps very little. She vomits. She also tells herself,
‘This man is not going to fuck with me.‘
Her dread becomes a reality even though she has prepared well. Although not a victim, she experiences confusion, humiliation, gaslighting and exhaustion.
A running coach attached to a prestigious boys’ school groomed and assaulted fifteen-year-old Paris Street. His experience as a witness included the sort of brutality meted out to the women mentioned above. Even though still a child, the barrister subjected him to many hours of questioning.
The school did not support him or his family. They and others involved were more concerned with their own reputations.
Having clearly established the considerable difficulties which face witnesses in sexual assault cases, Milligan concludes Witness with a list of ways to fix the system. They seem necessary, sensible and doable. They also appear to be almost cost neutral for the justice system. But they would improve immeasurably the experience of witnesses.
They would also mean that better prepared and supported witnesses would be able to provide better evidence. This would assist juries, magistrates and judges to make more informed and just decisions.
I went to our local Dymocks bookshop armed with $120 worth of hoarded gift cards. My plans included spending all of it on books from the short-list for the Stella Award (2021). Sadly, the only book available out of 12 on the short- and long- lists for this award was Witness. Disappointed, I took it home.
Perhaps, I thought, I should rethink buying Australian and supporting local businesses.
I wrote an email to the head office, but so far no reply.
However, I could not put the book down. It informed, educated and entertained me. It prompted me to think in different ways. I am even more concerned now about the treatment meted out to victims of rape and other forms of sexual abuse. My ideas about justice in the legal system have been upset. Again.
Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021
This review forms part of my response to the Australian Women Writers Challenge. You can read about my commitment to the challenge here.