The opinions Judge Willis expressed in the case of Beverly Whitehead versus Woolworths have earned him column inches of notoriety. But his judicial musings on the proper place and nature of women are not new; indications of his conservativism were already apparent from S versus Bennett, a 1999 judgement relating to domestic violence.
The matter involved an appeal against the denial of bail. Keith Bennett, who had a long history of assaulting his ex-wife Anne, had once again violated a prevention of Family Violence Interdict. After having been arrested (eventually) he appeared before magistrate Wagenaar who denied him bail pending the hearing of the case. On appeal Judge Willis promptly overturned Wagenaar's decision and ordered Bennett's release on bail.
Particularly astounding to Willis was Wagenaar's belief in Anne Ribet's story; half of his five page judgement is devoted to attacking this belief. In the end the Bennett who emerges from Willis' judgement is a "committed Christian… involved in church work" while Anne Ribets is described as an unstable liar who "wrongfully and unlawfully accused him [Bennett] of serious misconduct." Evidence in support of these characterisations of Bennett and Ribets comes from such impartial sources as Bennett and his lawyer from "the well-known and well-established firm Fluxman Rabinowitz-Raphaely Weiner." Proof of Ribets' deceitful nature is discerned in her past withdrawals of some of the domestic violence-related charges against Bennett, and Bennett's acquittals over the years of the remaining charges. Clinching the case against Ms Ribets, is her marrying and divorcing Bennett three times; Willis finds it "unlikely that a person [who] has been seriously threatened or whose life has been endangered by another remarries such a person."
Had Willis wanted to understand Ms Ribets' behaviour better, he could have turned to the wealth of research exploring the effects of domestic violence upon its victims. He might even have read of the law's neglect of domestic violence, and of the half-hearted police investigations and limp prosecutions which result in acquittals. He would have discovered that abusive men are past masters at presenting themselves as the epitome of upright respectability in public, and how adept they are at manipulating others. But rather than relying on well-substantiated research, Willis preferred to draw on "Great works such as the Bible or Shakespeare"which make it plain that women are capable of "evil", "malice" and "wrong-doing".
In light of his comments, one wonders what Judge Willis makes of the most recent assault upon Ribets. In February of this year Bennett allegedly arrived at his ex-wife's house, knocked her unconscious with a firearm and shot a friend of hers three times. The Nisaa Institute for Women's Development in Lenasia is currently engaged in a campaign to highlight the criminal justice system's failure to assist Anne Ribets over the years.
Willis would be well-advised to follow the example set by Judge Satchwell in a 1997 rape case heard in the civil court. Judge Satchwell observed that judges are ill-equipped to understand the impact of rape upon the victim and ruled that expert knowledge was required to assist the courts in coming to a decision on such matters. Such knowledge, she thought, resided in those who had studied and worked in the area of sexual violence – and not, presumably, in those who had merely read Shakespeare and the Bible. We can only hope that Judge Willis arrives at such a modest assessment of his abilities before any more hapless women are subjected to his baffling vision of gender equality.
Lisa Vetten is the former Manager of the Gender Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Originally published in The Sunday Independent, 7 May 2000.