A Magistrate who told a sexual assault complainant that “she had put herself in the position” of being sexual assaulted and subsequently “had buyer’s remorse” has resigned following an investigation by the Judicial Commission of Victoria.
The Commission ordered an investigation into now former magistrate Richard Pithouse over a string of complaints, including remarks amounting to ‘victim blaming’ made while he was presiding over a case involving a civil claim by a woman for victims’ compensation for alleged acts of a sexual nature committed against her.
According to the complainant’s case, she met a man at Melbourne’s Crown Casino in 2017 where they had several drinks before the pair proceeded to the man’s Yarraville home.
Her next recollection was waking up in the man’s home the next morning with a “vague recollection” of being sexually assaulting as she began to pass out the previous night due to her level of intoxication.
The woman later called a crisis hotline before reporting the matter to police, and a doctor later conducted a physical examination on her.
The alleged perpetrator was never charged with a criminal offence and the woman later applied for compensation through the state’s financial aid scheme for victims of crime.
In court, the woman’s lawyer submitted her client could not have legally consented to sexual activity as she was too intoxicated to do so.
However, Magistrate Pithouse saw the factual matrix in a different light, telling the woman “you can’t profit from your own malfeasance” and opining that ““she had put herself in the position” of having sexual activity and subsequently “had buyer’s remorse”.
The woman’s claim was unsuccessful and she subsequently made a formal complaint to the state’s Judicial Commission.
The Magistrate’s comments sparked community outrage after being made public, with many angry about the inference the woman had likely consented to sexual activity before regretting her actions and subsequently attempting to profiteer through the victims’ compensation scheme.
Victims’ groups asserted that such comments make it difficult for victims to report sexual assaults against them, fearing that they will be disbelieved and potentially further traumatised.
Magistrate stood down
Magistrate Pithouse was stood down in February 2023 while being investigated over this and several other complaints.
Another complaint involved remarks made after an alleged victim of domestic violence refused to give a statement to police against her alleged abuser. The Magistrate stated:
“Well, it’s her right to get beaten up if she wants to, I suppose” and “she won’t make statements, she won’t make complaints, what am I to do?”
The Judicial Commission considered the remarks, “inappropriate and insensitive”.
A third complaint related to an incident when the Magistrate himself failed to stop and report a traffic accident, as is required under the law.
On reviewing the incident, the Commission found that Magistrate Pithouse had made a “conscious decision” to continue driving and “failed to respect and observe the law”.
The Commission ultimately recommended that Magistrate Pithouse be counselled by the Chief Magistrate while stood down, as well as receive peer supervision and training about the experiences of victims of crime.
But he has since resigned from his position.
Magistrates and Judges have an important role within the courts. Both roles require impartiality, independence, rationality, reasonableness, and a sound knowledge of the law.
In New South Wales, Judges sit in the District Court and other higher courts.
Judges, sometimes also called Justices, primarily hear more complex legal matters, in both the criminal and civil context and are responsible for overseeing a jury, in cases where an accused person is on trial by a jury of their peers.
In New South Wales, Magistrates operate in the Local Court, known as the Magistrates Court in other states.
The role of Magistrates in NSW
Magistrates tend to deal with shorter, less legally complex criminal matters and Magistrates sit without juries and must determine all questions of law and fact in the cases that come before them.
Because a significant number of people appearing before the local court in NSW are unrepresented, Magistrates have a very important role to ensure these people are treated fairly throughout the process.
In New South Wales, Magistrates operate under significant pressure.
The Local Court deals with over 90% of all criminal matters in New South Wales and therefore Magistrates are involved in the majority of criminal proceedings from the time a matter first comes before the court, to the time it is either finalised or, in the case of serious matters, referred to a higher court.