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“Witness”: A Review of Louise Milligan’s Investigations into the Human Costs for Seeking Justice

Hand holding Louise Milligan’s book Witness: An Investigation into the Brutal Cost of Seeking Justice.

CONTENT WARNING: This book is heavy. It contains a lot of discussions about sexual assault and could be distressing for people. I think this book is great and is definitely important, but also remember to treat yourself with kindness if you are reading it.

I recently read Louise Milligan’s book Witness: An Investigation into the Brutal Cost of Seeking Justice which centres on Australian sexual assault trials in the courts. Louise Milligan writes from the perspective of a female journalist who has helped victims talk about their assaults in the media through her journalistic work, as well as her own experiences with having to participate in some of these trials as a first complaint witness.

This book is not easy to read. It is harrowing and it made me extremely emotional and it even made me cry. With that said, I also feel that this book is extremely important and desperately needed – not just for the Australian criminal justice system, but for many countries the world over.

This book follows the stories of victims of sexual assault who report their assault, and have it go to trial in Australia. Something that is actually extremely rare. In Australia, sexual assault is still grossly under-reported and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has some extremely tragic statistics on just how prevalent sexual assault is (for all genders) and how it does not get reported. And while statistics are extremely important, I think that Milligan does something even more important with her book – she puts names to faces and helps tell the stories of survivors of sexual assault.

Many people have questioned Milligan’s writing style. She is after all a journalist, yet she has also inserted herself into the story. I would argue though, that if this was a book solely about sexual assault victims, the title would be Complainant not Witness. Sometimes sexual assault victims will write their own stories and we have seen that with the likes of Know My Name by Chanel Miller. But not all sexual assault victims are able to write about their experiences – let alone publish a book. While I think that all victims should be able to talk freely, some just cannot and will also never have the same kind of platform. Milligan is using her influence and large platform to get stories out that would otherwise have gone unheard. And for that, I cannot fault her work.

In Australia, the support for sexual assault victims is woeful. Our court system seems to have a ‘pay to play’ system, whereby if you are rich enough and can buy the best barristers to harass and discredit your victim in court, you’ll get off. And believe me, if Milligan’s book is anything to go off, there are a lot of barristers willing to re-traumatise and abuse victims in the name of the law for the right price. Victim’s of sexual assault don’t have their own lawyer to help them through the process and many of them go in blind to the onslaught that is about to be unleashed on them in the court room. Milligan’s book is great as being a conversation starter for ways to change the court systems in Australia to better support victims of sexual assault and to also help them with the court processes.

Milligan talks about legal reforms to help victims of sexual assault tell their stories in court and also have the correct legal support they need to tell their stories. I hope that books like this can bring about the change that we need in the legal system. As always, share the reading love.