Bri Lee: Justice on the Page

Thursday, August 9, 2018
By: 
Ellen O'Brien

In her powerful and candid memoir, ‘Eggshell Skull’, Brisbane-based writer Bri Lee recounts her year working as a judge’s associate in the Queensland District Court. During this time, she witnessed numerous instances where victims of sexual offences were denied due justice.

Spurred on by the courage and strength of these complainants, Lee realised she needed to report and seek justice for her own experience of sexual assault. Having seen the justice system from both sides, Lee offers a unique insight into Australia’s legal system.

Can you tell us more about the title of your memoir? Why did you choose the phrase ‘Eggshell Skull’?

The term ‘Eggshell Skull’ is a legal maxim that stands for the idea that you must ‘take your victim as you find them’. So if person A strikes person B and person B dies, person A is not allowed to say that person B just wasn’t strong enough, or didn’t have the fortitude of a regular person. It’s the idea that we’re responsible for the entirety of the ramifications of our actions, and that you can’t pick and choose parts of your victim to acknowledge. The term has always been about the weakness of a complainant though, and I wondered if it would be possible to turn the matter upside down. Could I be a strong, angry complainant who didn’t back down? Could I make it unlucky for the defendant to have to take me as he found me?

Your memoir describes a system that fails to provide justice for the people it’s meant to protect. How did your experience working as a judge’s associate change your view of Australia’s legal system? Can you tell us more about this experience?

It was disillusioning, for sure. I grew up with a police officer for a father, and he had a bit of a cynical view on justice, but I still believed in process and fairness. Seeing so much cruelty in the courts process was hard to reconcile with what I thought was incredible strength on the part of complainants. Starting the process of making a police complaint was where it got so much worse.

The carelessness with which the system heard and dealt with my complaint was inexcusable, and I don’t know how we expect people unfamiliar with legal issues, or people who don’t have financial or familial stability, to go through that same process.

The highest point of case attrition – where complaints are dropped or not proceeded with – is at the police stage. They’re under-resourced but also critically undertrained.

What improvements do you most want to see in Australia’s legal system?

For maximum impact we need to look at the police service in each state, then the prosecution services, and then the courts. There needs to be specialist officers who are trained to deal with sex offences – both adult and child; historical and recent – at all police stations. There is also a need for sexual assault experts who can be called at trial to inform the jury that, for example, it’s normal for someone to ‘freeze’ rather than fight back. At every step of the process there is hug room for improvement, including at the legislative stage where places like Queensland need to follow the lead of New South Wales and review consent laws.

What was the writing process like for this memoir? Was there a clear moment when you realised you had to write it?

I was taking meticulous notes, almost compulsively, during my year as an associate. A big, fat folder full of contemporaneous material.

Then the Kat Muscat Fellowship was announced and I knew what I had to do. Winning that fellowship changed my entire career trajectory. I will forever be indebted to the Muscat family and Express Media.

What effect do you think movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up are having on the reporting of sexual abuse and on getting justice for victims?

It is definitely helping. People are talking to each other about their experiences far more now that three years ago when I started writing this book. It helps that the general public are seeing how unfortunately common child sex offending is (thanks to things like the inquiry into institutional child abuse) and what an epidemic sexual harassment and sexual assault also is for adult women. The explosion of these matters being brought to public awareness also includes the conversations we’re finally having about domestic and family violence. It’s one big wave of previously shameful, secret things, finally being brought to light. It makes a big impact on the attitudes of survivors going to the police, the attitudes of the legal professionals themselves, and it helps to break down preconceptions that jurors might bring into the deliberation room.

You’re the founding editor of the quarterly publication ‘Hot Chicks with Big Brains’, which features interviews, essays, memoirs and illustrations from a diverse range of women. How did this publication come about?

I started the project as an online-only interview series with women I admired, and I’d go interview them and take their pictures, and upload them to a website. Really I just wanted an excuse to talk to them about their work and sense of self. It has steadily grown since then and I’m so proud of it. We have always paid everyone, and each issue has so many new voices alongside big names. It’s a lot of work, but I feel like it’s an opportunity for me to inject opportunity and infrastructure for publishing outcomes back into the writing community.

What one piece of advice would you give other writers undertaking a lot of research?

Take your time to do it, and take breaks in between. Researching is such a mentally rigorous and exhausting process, and it cannot be rushed or you’ll miss connections and opportunities to expand or limit scope. In my experience, the best ‘AHA!’ moments come far away from the desk, once you’ve ingested all the information, and are just boiling it away in your mind while you eat, and shower, and jog, and drive. Then you say ‘Pull over! Of course A is connected to B!’

What was the best advice and support you were given as an emerging writer?

At a live recording of ‘Chat 10, Looks 3’ recently Annabel Crabb said something that really resonated with me: as a young journalist your first day is the hardest. You don’t have any connections, nobody takes your calls, you don’t really know what you’re doing, and you’re a shit writer. (This is paraphrased, obviously.) I think it applies to all writing. I look back on how hard I worked for either no pay or very little pay five years ago, and I’m very privileged and grateful to say that I mostly don’t have to do that anymore. Success breeds, and attracts, success.

At the beginning you’ll feel like you’re slogging it out and not getting anywhere, but you are. It only gets easier.

As for support: money and mentoring. You need to pay rent and eat dinner, and you need guidance. Then you can write. I’ve benefited from so many amazing mentors, and I’ve rarely struggled with unemployment. I waitressed for years and years during university and was writing (and not showing anyone that writing) most of the time. We all start somewhere.

Sexual assault support services:

1800 RESPECT: 1800 737 732
Lifeline: 131 114
Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636

 

About Bri Lee

Bri Lee is a writer and editor whose work has been published in ‘The Guardian’, ‘Griffith Review’, and elsewhere, and she regularly appears on ABC Radio. In 2016, Bri was the recipient of the Kat Muscat Fellowship, and in 2017 was one of ‘Griffith Review’’s Queensland writing fellows. She is the founding editor of ‘Hot Chicks with Big Brains’. In 2018, Bri received a Commonwealth Government of Australia scholarship and stipend to work on her second book at the University of Queensland. She is qualified to practice law, but doesn’t.

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