When legal pragmatism wins over justice: A case analysis

By PNG Echo

This is the second in the series about violence against women in PNG. It was my intention to just tell the stories in all their horrific detail … alas, although I consider myself a storyteller, sometimes the academic in me will not be still. An analysis of the case outlined below is instructive on some of the problems that women face in PNG when looking for justice. Within that problem also lies the solution (or at least a part thereof.)   Read on:

The story:

Judge Manuhu, well-meaning but wrong.

A potential client went to see a young lawyer to complain that her husband was adulterous and wanted to take another wife. While I’m not sure with what she wanted him charged, the young lawyer did consider her case was clearly winnable.

Now, I know adultery is still on the statute books in PNG and I’m not sure about the polygamy laws and/or customs in the province in which she was residing at the time. It’s a fair assumption, though, that she wanted to stop her husband taking another wife.

Notwithstanding that she had a winnable case, this young lawyer dissuaded her from taking court action because winning in court would not stop her husband from beating her (a new piece of vital information) and there were the children to consider, he told her.

What a damning indictment of the efficacy of justice in PNG accompanied by an acceptance of a sick status quo.

Instead he gave her enough money to return to her home province but stipulated it must be alone and without taking any belongings or any of her children. Clearly this put her out of her husband’s reach. Problem solved?

No, no, no – it just exacerbated and further entrenched the customs of an unfair and unsafe society for women.

This lawyer’s solution represents pragmatism over justice and punishes the victim. I’m sure the young lawyer was well-meaning, BUT HE WAS WRONG.

The trouble is, this young lawyer grew up to become Justice George Manuhu of the National and Supreme Courts of Papua New Guinea and the learned judge has recently told this story to a public audience of thousands (available to millions) espousing the wisdom of the decision and exhorting others to take notice. With no juries in PNG, he now sits in sole judgment (in the first instance) on similar cases.

Why was he wrong?

  1. He was wrong because he knew that the wife was living with a violent man – yet he focussed on the victim rather than the perpetrator.
  2. She was the one punished by being banished, penniless, in the clothes she stood up in, back to her home province – yet she was the victim.
  3. He irresponsibly aided her to leave her children with a man he knew to be violent – what’s more, children whose mother abandons them suffer enormously – how would they know, at the time, that she had little choice?
  4. It was ignored that it left a miscreant living in the community who would possibly continue his violent ways because his illegal behaviour was never challenged – and it should have been – and by Manuhu. Removing the victim does nothing to curb the behaviour of the perpetrator who, in all probability, will just find another victim.

It was this lawyer’s job to prosecute alleged felons, not to find solutions that let off the offender scot free while penalising the victim. Perhaps he could have given her that one-way fare AFTER the courts had suitably punished the behaviour of the perpetrator, did he think of that?

It brings up the problem of the reluctance of anyone in PNG to tackle the problem of male perpetrated violence against females – or to even acknowledge it exists – except in the abstract. (I know, it is not the only problem that exists with violence but it is the predominant one and the one we are tackling here.)

The solution is for men to stop. It’s simple, really. Except who is going to make them?

When we have a system, in the main administered by men, (where are those women parliamentarians?) most of whom do their own share of wife-beating, according to recorded statistics, who’s going to stand up and point a finger and/or make a stand?

If the statistic of 70% (disputed, I know) is anywhere near the actuality, then we have around 78 parliamentarians who are perpetrators – and why would the judiciary be immune?

Apparently, the story has a happy ending for her: but the end does not justify the means and I find it alarming that the people who commented on the Jjudge’s post, to a wo/man, agreed with him. They were admiring – gushing even. No one had the wherewithal and the insight to say, “no, in this instance, you did not do well.”

Instead they said his story was:

“…inspiring”
“…the Manus way”
“…the ideal way to go”

and my all time favourite – which illustrates my next point perfectly

“…a worthy lesson for a lot of womenfolk.”

The lesson that I took away from the story is that the courts in PNG are all but useless to protect a woman that’s being brutalised and, in fact, they would prefer not to have to bother themselves with such a thing. Prosecuting a man on behalf of a woman would be anathema to many PNGeans – the women should take responsibility themselves (it’s probably their own fault).

I’m not at all surprised that commenters were sycophantic to Justice Manuhu. He is considered a PNG ‘Bik Man’ and the wisdom of a Bik Man is not to be questioned, just marvelled at.

With this one story, Justice Manuhu has set back the cause of beaten women in PNG and further entrenched the paradigms that keep her bruised and subdued.

Yet the perpetrator carried absolutely no responsibility – and that includes an obligation to obey the law – assault is against the law in PNG – yes, even assault on a woman (pardon my sarcasm – it’s hard to contain when I’m utterly disgusted).

Solution within the problem

How much more useful would it have been had the learned judge said something about the evil’s of bashing women? How much more useful if he had roundly condemned the man’s behaviour and said that the courts would not tolerate the flagrant breaking of the laws of the land? How much more useful would it have been if he had talked about zero tolerance in his court for perpetrators of violence against women – that should these miscreants be before him, that he’d throw the book at them? But did he? No he did not.

You ‘Bik Men’ know your word is gospel to those who look up to you – use it to solve the biggest problem you have in PNG today – or can we assume that you are part of the problem: a perpetrator yourself?

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