Estonian lawyers: Protection of victims of domestic violence insufficient

Law. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Practicing lawyers find that Estonia does too little to protect the rights of victims of domestic violence, a recent report reveals. Estonia has neither an overview of violent offenders nor any control over them, lawyers suggest.

"Estonia is the undisputed leader in Europe when it comes to domestic violence and three-quarters of practicing lawyers consider victim rights to be a problematic or very problematic field," Iiris Pettai, survey author and head of the Estonian Institute for Open Society, said.

"Lawyers, prosecutors and judges see these cases closer up than the public," she added.

"We are a civilized country but we do have problems," Pettai said in front of the Riigikogu following an invitation from the Social Democratic Party (SDE). "Our lawyers sport a strong sense of ethics and responsibility. The survey interviewed 200 practicing lawyers online. It turned out that over 70 percent of lawyers in Estonia feel that ensuring the rights of victims of domestic violence is problematic in the country. Lawyers highlighted as the biggest pain spot the ability to offer victims support payments so they could cope independently," Pettai said.

She described lack of a victim-centered approach as a systematic flaw. "Significance is attached to legal norms and regulations, not the victim's problems and needs."

Pettai suggested that domestic violence is such a specific form of crime to warrant separate regulation. "Hidden and complicated domestic violence situations cannot be resolved and processed as you would a bar fight," Pettai emphasized. "Our legal environment should sport a case-based approach to domestic violence to avoid revictimization and encourage people to seek help."

Regarding conciliation procedure, Pettai said that the mediator has no way to predict potential violence and risks in the future, which makes it a dangerous form of proceedings for the victim. "Furthermore, it places the offender in one situation and the victim in completely another. The victim has been traumatized, and it could take five or ten years for them to get over it, which is when conciliation could start. A person who has been traumatized and is being manipulated cannot be made to reconcile with their attacker. That would just enable further violence, which is dangerous," the institute head said.

For those reasons, developed countries make virtually no use of reconciliation procedure, she added.

Courts reluctant to issue restraining orders

Sworn lawyer Tamber Laasik, who has studies domestic violence up close, said that Estonia should do much more for the victims. "Victims of domestic violence are in a singular situation and also need protection after the offense has taken place," Laasik emphasized. "They need protection not just from their attacker but also traumatization by the legal system and proceedings."

Laasik, having defended both victims and those accused of domestic violence, told the Riigikogu that his experience suggests it is much harder to help the victim than it is an offender. "The procedure and substantive law today benefit the violent offender," Laasik said.

"My experience suggests offenders are very keen to enter reconciliation procedure, while I have yet to meet a victim who did. The victim wants to be left alone and to have no more contact with the person who attacked them."

The solution could come in the form of a restraining order. "Estonian courts get around 60 restraining order requests a year. This in a situation where we have around 4,000 annual domestic violence cases," Laasik remarked, adding that courts satisfy just 15 of the 60 requests every year.

Laasik said that many judges feel that a restraining order constitutes severe infringement of the rights of violent offenders. "However, our priority should be to protect the victim," he said.

The study also reveals that lawyers are most critical of Estonia lacking an overview or any control over offenders. There is no capacity to prevent serious cases. The lion's share of lawyers also finds that a person who visits violence upon the other parent is unfit to raise a child and should not be given custody.

The Estonian Institute for Open Society interviewed around 200 practicing lawyers and asked attorneys, prosecutors and judges about the justice system's ability to properly address domestic violence.

The Estonian Bar Association on necessary changes:

Legal assistance for victims

The victim also needs quality legal assistance in domestic violence proceedings, whether civilian or criminal. While it is available in principle, victims are often unaware. State legal assistance rates are so low that finding attorneys willing to offer the service is getting harder every year. At the same time, domestic violence is a multifaceted and complicated topic and requires a specialist to get it right.

Putting an end to revictimization during proceedings

One facet of revictimization is pressure to guide people in a violent relationship toward so-called family conciliation. There are situations where it could put the victim in an even worse position and pose a threat to their life and health. A one solution fits all approach should not be taken.

Creating effective addiction treatment

A considerable part of domestic violence starts with alcohol or drug addiction. Attackers are often ordered to go through rehabilitation. The system gets to check a box and seemingly resolve the situation, while attorneys who see proceedings up close know that there is almost no effective rehabilitation with lasting results available. Without overcoming addiction, there is no overcoming domestic violence.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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