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Personal reflections on Pacific prosecution of domestic violence: a Fiji experience

My exposure to work in the area of criminal law began in September 2005. I joined the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) in Suva, as a 24-year-old naïve Fijian girl. I had just completed my degree and bar exams the preceding months at the University of the South Pacific in Vanuatu.

Photo of Heilala Tabete (left), Jojiana Cokanasiga (right), and their late friend Ms Laisa Lagilevu (middle) during their ODPP days in Suva (2007)

At the time, it did not occur to me just how much influence criminal prosecution work would have on my life and how that would impact the trajectory of my career years later. In Fiji, we have a fused system where admission to the legal Bar enables you to practice as a Barrister and Solicitor. My first experience as a Barrister in the High Court (the equivalent of Queensland’s District Court) was frightening to say the least. Wigs, gowns, senior counsel sitting at the bar table giving you the once-over. My submissions may have only lasted 10-20 minutes, but it was nerve-wrecking and I remember promising myself never to enter the High Court room ever again!

To my disappointment, that is impossible when you work at the ODPP. I later developed a fondness and respect for the courts, be it the Magistrates Court, the High Court or Appellate Courts. At times, my experience could be described as being ‘thrown-in-the-deep-end’ and criminal High Court trials were exactly as one skilled defence lawyer said, a ‘baptism of fire’. I have had one-too-many of those fiery baptisms at the ODPP. The experience left an indelible mark on me.

While the criminal justice process was rigorous, the cases and stories of people’s lives captured in those police dockets and criminal files were heartbreaking. I realised that we live in a dark and broken world with a lot of broken people. It made me appreciate the workings of the criminal justice system, especially in the Pacific. With limited resources, our system would heave its way trying to dispense justice.

My case load in a year could range between 80-200 files. Whilst my work covered a wide range, most involved women and children as victims of sexual or violent crimes. I worked in matters that emerged from a domestic violence incident and had associated criminal charges from minor assaults to manslaughter to murder. At the time, Fiji was yet to enact its own domestic violence legislation. As such, domestic violence matters were treated on the same level as criminal matters. This was particularly hard for the aggrieved because the burden of proof, i.e. to prove beyond reasonable doubt, was a hard threshold to satisfy.

I remember a case I managed regarding a lady who had to endure the humiliating experience of being stripped naked and brutally beaten by her husband in front of her home. This incident happened in broad daylight and while her neighbours watched. She was admitted to hospital and a series of serious assault charges were laid against her husband. She attended our office, and I prepared her case. As we neared our trial date, this lady turned up unexpectedly with a letter from her Church. The letter said that she was undergoing counselling and she wished to withdraw the case. I found it difficult to reconcile her earlier experience with her current choice to withdraw. I sensed her struggle and that she did not want me to make it harder than it was for her. My regret to this day is wishing I had encouraged her to proceed.

As I write this blog, I reflect that the legal process at the time would not have helped her plight. Like many other Pacific Island nations, Fiji is a small country where degrees of separation are close to non-existent. Within these tight bands, it is common for witness interference to occur in extended families, domestic violence survivors are shamed for speaking out against heads of households - which can lead to a lack in support. There is economic disparity, especially if the perpetrator is the main or sole breadwinner. And a survivor has to overcome those hurdles, before you get to court and present your case against a high threshold. More often than not, sexual and violent crimes against women fall over due to these extenuating circumstances before it reaches the pressure cooker of a courtroom.

My own experience, having grown up in a home where I witnessed violence firsthand, made me sympathise with this lady. I realised that my own culture normalised and condoned domestic violence. Unfortunately, our women are silent victims. The patriarchal nature sometimes coupled with Christian principles (most well-intended and aimed to preserve the family unit), will often influence a woman’s decision to not proceed with a case. There is a stigma of shame and fear. It is an awfully hard place to be.

In 2009, Fiji’s Domestic Violence Decree (now Domestic Violence Act) was enacted. I and a team of prosecutors were involved in providing community awareness and teaching Police on the provisions of this new law. I was committed to fully understanding the process of the new domestic violence law and facilitating part of the process in Court. Armed with the new legislation, I was pleased to see the completion and success rate of these types of cases increase in our Court system. It gave me hope.

In 2013, I was awarded an AusAID scholarship to pursue a Master’s in Australia. Given this line of work, I chose a field of study related to gender and law. In 2015, I wrote a 20,000-word sub-thesis on the Impact of domestic violence legislation in Fiji. It was this sub-thesis that led me to pursuing doctoral studies on the same topic at the University of Queensland.

Photo of Jojiana Cokanasiga and Heilala Tabete in Brisbane (2021)

So here I am. My experience as a Prosecutor has brought me to this place, and 16 years later the criminal law remains a large part of who I am and what I am doing. It is my personal desire that both my Masters sub-thesis and Doctoral thesis will assist not only Pacific women but all women in seeking help from domestic violence. My aim is to enable Pacific women in having a better chance to navigate a complex legal system, if they understand its basic framework, its attitude and available resources.

As I research, I am also learning that apart from legal responses addressing domestic violence, non-legal responses can also be utilised to assist. I hope that my thesis will provide guidance to churches and communities in assessing ways to assist victims and perpetrators of domestic violence in order to navigate the criminal justice process; not by excusing or condoning violence, but by addressing the problem and changing attitudes on domestic violence. The law alone cannot solve social problems – a combination of legal and non-legal (or social) responses can provide an effective means of changing the culture of violence in our communities.

Written by Jojiana Cokanasiga.

Edited by Heilala Tabete.

Jojiana Cokanasiga is a phD student at the University of Queensland, writing her paper on domestic violence in Fiji with a focus on the prosecutorial system. Jojiana is a wife and mother of 2. When not researching and developing her thesis, Jojiana enjoys listening to music, reading and baking.

Both Jojiana and Heilala worked at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Fiji between the years 2005 – 2013. Both are members and contributors of Pasifika Lawyers Association of Queensland.


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