A Bay of Plenty barrister says lawyers have a crucial role to play in the campaign against domestic violence, and understanding the causes and effects can prove vital.
Megan Leaf is one of the faces of a video project coordinated by It’s not OK, a national campaign run by the Ministry of Social Development to prevent family violence through changing attitudes and behaviour.
Local community campaigns involve a range of people as “champions” who speak up about family violence issues and who are trained to provide initial support to people affected by family violence. Megan is a champion in her home town, Te Puke.
Understanding the triggers
She says while lawyers in New Zealand have a strong awareness of protection orders and all the legal elements around domestic violence, many don’t understand the triggers.
“The thing that blew me away was that I didn’t have enough understanding of the reasons why people go back to violent relationships and the effects it has on children, and the level you have to go to to try to stop it reoccurring. I just didn’t understand it and even though it doesn’t affect what you do, in terms of getting a protection order, for example, it does affect how you treat the person.
“I haven’t come from a privileged background by any means, but I have come from a background with no emotional abuse, or domestic violence relationships, so I have never had exposure to the type of thing that changes you into a person that thinks they’re not worth it.
“And because I haven’t had that experience it was just not on my radar and I wouldn’t think the average New Zealand lawyer going into family law has come from a background where they have gained that knowledge. And you can only gain that by listening to the perpetrators and the victims.”
Since speaking of her work in the video, Megan has had some positive feedback, and is part of an event to raise the issue this autumn.
“I have had quite a few inquiries about what sort of seminars I’d been to. I’ve also had some feedback from social workers and relationship counsellors and colleagues just interested in what I’m doing now.”
Megan has been helping to organise a red carpet event in Te Puke in May, in which she hopes to get a prominent Judge to talk, and will include a showing of an American documentary on the effects of domestic violence, The Mask You Live In.
“We’re trying to get six or seven high-profile New Zealand men who have male children to come on to a panel discussion to talk about how to grow good men,” she says.
The Mask You Live In follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating what it calls America’s narrow definition of masculinity.
In the It’s not OK video, which can been viewed on YouTube, Ms Leaf speaks of other ways, above the issuing of a protection order, that can help vulnerable women, such as knowing where to ask for help and building supportive networks. She says this is a totally foreign concept to lawyers who think purely in terms of processes, court proceedings and achieving goals.
She says she is often approached through her involvement in squash and netball and at her children’s schools.
Stephanie Edmond, a Senior Advisor on the It’s not OK Campaign says lawyers can be at the forefront of the campaign to stop domestic violence.
“We want to reach every person in New Zealand, so having a lawyer like Megan, who has become actively involved as a local champion, and brings a lot of understanding to the subject, is a vital tool for the campaign.
“That’s very significant to us because she’s talking about being able to do her job better because she now understands the topic better. We would love it if more lawyers wanted to do that too – every time someone increases their understanding of family violence it means they are in a position to help other people.
“We would like more lawyers to be involved, and to be local champions. If lawyers are living in a community where there is a campaign going they can join it. But we also run a lot of workshops for different professions and groups, and that would be the ideal situation if a group of lawyers wanted to understand family violence better, or they wanted one of our speakers.”