Changes needed in our legal approach to domestic abuse
A history of domestic abuse, a wife killed at the hands of her husband, suspicious female friends appealing to a local Justice of the Peace regarding the missing woman, a missing body ... the facts of a crime that seems like it could have been ripped from today's headlines.
However, it is a brief outline of the tragic facts in the brutal murder and hiding of the body of Anna Skeeters at the hand of her husband, Edward Skeeters, both from Somerset, Bermuda, in 1878.
The murder of Anna Skeeters, the most extreme act of domestic violence before the term existed, was the catalyst for the creation of the first Bermuda Police Service in 1879 and today should still serve as a reminder that when a gap in the service provided in the criminal justice system becomes evident, it should be a catalyst to advocate for change.
I read with interest the Letter to the Editor submitted by Leighton Rochester, published by this newspaper on May 26, 2020.
Mr Rochester expressed the concern echoed by many in the community regarding the disappearance of Chavelle Dillon-Burgess and stated that the officers of the court failed to honour a duty of care that was owed to Ms Dillon-Burgess.
I appreciate Mr Rochester's view, but I submit that his analysis did not go far enough. To lament that a duty of care was owed and not honoured, without an examination of the present legislative limitations that may hamper cases in which domestic violence may be an issue, makes a presumption that the required legislative tools to effectively support the intricacies of domestic violence cases are in place but were not utilised.
In fact, Bermuda has not kept pace with legislative developments aimed at addressing cases with a domestic-abuse component. I will refer to domestic violence in the context of this letter but note that domestic violence is just one of the many forms in which domestic abuse may occur.
The substantive facts of the case before the court in which Ms Dillon-Burgess was the complainant were not heard, but my review of the bare facts as they were reported, show that Ms Dillon-Burgess was the complainant in numerous allegations of assault and wounding in both 2018 and 2019, and the father of her child was named as the defendant in all of the matters.
Ms Dillon-Burgess and the defendant appeared in court a total of nine times in the period of just over one year stemming from Ms Dillon-Burgess's assault and wounding allegations.
On March 18, 2020, The Royal Gazette reported on Ms Dillon-Burgess's last court appearance, and I refer the reader who would like further information on the court proceedings as reported by The Royal Gazette to that article, particularly with respect to amending existing legislation and policy to address the challenges in cases that may have a familial or domestic component.
With a note that the below suggestions should be balanced with the right of the defendant to a fair trial along with right of the victim to be free from degrading or inhuman treatment, I submit that the implementation of legislative and policy changes in the spirit of the considerations listed below can aid our criminal justice system in supporting victims of domestic violence and in addressing the particular challenges with cases in which domestic violence may be an issue:
• Training Bermuda Police Service officers in domestic-abuse risk identification and evidence collection — similar to the United Kingdom's and Crown Prosecution Service Joint Domestic Abuse Evidence Checklist
• Owing to the controlling and coercive behaviour that often accompanies domestic abuse, Bermuda's Department of Public Prosecutions adopt the UK Crown Prosecution's model of working with the BPS on a Domestic Abuse Evidence Checklist that ensures that cases of domestic violence do not rely solely on the evidence of the victim/witness
• Provide prosecutors with the legislative ability to pursue criminal charges in cases which domestic violence is alleged without the complainant, using existing charging guidelines, but also carefully considering the public interest given the domestic nature and serious impact of the offence
• Allowing hearsay applications in the context of domestic violence cases that allow the prosecution to make an application for the admissibility of the victim/witness statement because of the reluctance of the witness to attend court and for a witness who may be fearful to attend with an appreciation of the various methods of control and abuse that can cause fear in a domestic abuse victim — eg, threats of loss of access to a child
• Allowing the use of res gestae with regard to cases of domestic violence. Allowing statements or sounds made by the victim/witness so contemporaneous with the occurrence of the abuse that the possibility that they concocted or distorted such sounds or statement can be disregarded
• Allow the use of previous inconsistent statements made by the victim/witness in a domestic violence case to be admissible in court as evidence of what the victim/witness alleges happened
• Expand the scope and reach of special measures available for witnesses upon application to court to support victims/witnesses in cases involving domestic violence — and vulnerable and intimidated witnesses in other cases
The introduction of a Specialist Domestic Violence Court, dedicated to hearing cases of domestic abuse, involving magistrates and other court officers trained in handling domestic violence cases, case management conferences with independent domestic violence counsellors and advisers, to provide support for victims of domestic violence, both during and after the court process, and to provide monitoring of offenders convicted of domestic violence to ensure compliance with court orders and the safety of victims.
I submit this letter today, but in truth started to write it once I realised that Ms Dillon-Burgess was the same woman who appeared as a complainant numerous times over the past year in the Magistrates' Court. I thank Mr Rochester, as his letter prompted me to return to this letter and complete it, moved as I was by his submission in this newspaper.
It is my fervent hope that whether in support or disagreement of the above, this letter also serves to continue the dialogue regarding the need for a change in our approach to cases that involve allegations of all forms of domestic abuse and, last but certainly not least, that it ensures that we continue to keep public interest and pressure on the search to find Chavelle Dillon-Burgess.
• On occasion The Royal Gazette may decide to not allow comments on a story that we deem might inflame sensitivities. As we are legally liable for any libellous or defamatory comments made on our website, this move is for our protection as well as that of our readers.