Judges accused of anti-female bias: Anger in Australia as victims blamed for rapes

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JUDGES IN Australia are to undergo courses in male-female relationships after national outrage over remarks by judges in three separate rape cases.

The cases, within months of each other and leaving little doubt that the judges blamed the women involved, have opened the judiciary to fresh charges of being out of touch with public standards on sexual crimes. They have also produced calls for the sacking of some judges and reforms in the way judges are selected.

The latest row stems from a decision by Judge Norman O'Bryan in the Supreme Court of Victoria to impose a lenient sentence on a rapist - who beat a 17-year-old schoolgirl unconscious and slit her throat - because, the judge argued, the girl was unconscious and therefore not traumatised when she was actually raped.

Paul Stanbrook, 26, pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated rape and attempted murder of the girl in November 1991. According to evidence, he had unsuccessfully made sexual advances to a former lover, then announced he would 'go out and find a 17- or 18-year-old'.

He grabbed his victim as she walked home from school, threatened her with a knife and dragged her down an embankment. When the girl struggled and tried to take the knife, he punched her in the face until she was unconscious, and raped her. Then he slit her throat from ear to ear. The girl survived.

Last November, Judge O'Bryan ruled that Stanbrook deserved a sentence 'significantly less' than the maximum 20 years for rape. He sentenced him to concurrent terms of nine years for rape and 11 years for attempted murder, with a nine-year non-parole period.

The retired judge, who is on the 'reserve list' for occasional duty, said: 'The aggravated rape was most serious, but, having regard to the unusual circumstance that the victim was not traumatised by the event, indeed was probably comatose at the time, a sentence significantly less than the maximum is deemed appropriate.' He told Stanbrook: 'The sexual attack was probably a spontaneous reaction to the circumstance that the victim was opportunely in a secluded place and provided an easy target for your pent-up lust.'

In March, an appeal judge found that Judge O'Bryan had 'a mistaken view of the facts' and increased the cumulative sentence to 12 years.

The case caused public trauma in the country town where it happened, and it has shot to national prominence now because of revelations of a string of like-minded judicial pronouncements.

Last month, Judge John Bland in the County Court of Victoria told a youth who had pleaded guilty to raping a 15-year-old girl in a hay shed: 'It does happen, in the common experience of those who have been in the law as long as I have anyway, that 'no' often subsequently means 'yes'.'

The third case involved Judge Derek Bollen in the Supreme Court of South Australia who told a jury last August, in the trial of a man charged with the rape of his wife, that it was acceptable for men to use 'rougher than usual handling' to persuade their wives to have sexual intercourse. The man was acquitted. The South Australian Court of Criminal Appeal ruled last month that the judge had erred in law.

After public condemnation of Judge Bollen's remarks, Paul Keating, the Prime Minister, announced earlier this year that courses would be developed for magistrates and judges 'to help them identify prejudices that might impact on their judicial conduct towards women'.

Widely seen as a political ploy before Australia's recent election, these courses will now be accelerated under pressure from women across the political spectrum. Jenni Mattila, president of the Women Lawyers' Association, said yesterday: 'Judges are usually from male-dominated backgrounds where they have had little dealings with women, except in subordinate roles.'

Pat O'Shane, the country's only Aboriginal magistrate, and one of its most outspoken women, thinks the judgments reflect a wider animosity towards women in Australia: 'There's been a very substantial backlash against women in recent years, and it's been no more clearly expressed than by judges.'