The Jerusalem District Court, hearing an appeal against a judgment of the Jerusalem Family Court (Judge Menachem HaCohen), recently ordered a defendant to pay monetary compensation to his ex-wife for physical and emotional abuse, as well as for defamation.
The fact that she won the case wasn’t the precedent. However, the amount awarded was, to the best of my knowledge, unprecedented in these cases.
The District Court ordered the ex-husband to pay a grand total of 600,000 shekels – 500,000 shekels for the abuse and 100,000 shekels for the defamation – as opposed to a total of 68,000 shekels in the Family Court. This is particularly unusual given that awards for general pain and suffering are generally not that high in the Israeli justice system.
The money represents a forceful statement by the panel of three judges (Moshe Sobel, Tamar Bazak-Rappaport and David Mintz) about the unacceptable nature of not just physical abuse, but about emotional abuse as well. From my point of view, that’s a major leap, since those of us in the field often have a tough time getting judges to understand just how destructive and noxious emotional abuse is.
It’s important to note that the District Court accepted all of the findings of fact in the Family Court where Judge HaCohen determined that for years, the ex-husband attacked the plaintiff physically. The Family Court also accepted the woman’s claim that she had been abused emotionally by the defendant.
The incident, or rather, ongoing incident, which seems to have caught both courts’ attention, was when the husband ordered the wife over a period of a few months to write a 32 page letter, in which she was forced to reveal, in intimate detail, the affair she had with another man. The purpose of this letter was to deter her from pressing to receive all of her legal rights in divorce proceedings. Basically, the man threatened the woman that if she pushed for all of her rights, he would publicize the letter. And, to make the threat credible, he in fact sent portions thereof to the woman’s father when she filed a lawsuit against him.
The Court accepted the woman’s testimony that she had no choice but to write the letter; over a period of a few months the husband oversaw the progress of the letter, prevented her from leaving the house on days in which, she hadn’t progressed to his satisfaction with her writing, and sometimes even threw out pages from her letter in order that she “correct” them according to his expectations.
The lower court found that in the behaviour patterns of the couple made it clear that the woman she was under the husband’s control, and that the letter was not her idea. The husband even testified that he asked to keep the letter as a “card for the future” and admitted that he sent portions of it to the wife’s father. Therefore, the lower court found that the husband debased her, and infringed on her dignity during the course of the marriage. In doing so, he violated in her basic freedoms, and violated her autonomy to run her life as she sees fit.
The District Court characterized the evidence with regard to the emotional violence as “even more severe” than the physical attacks.
The appeals court explained that given the extreme nature of the abuse and the horrific behaviour, the monetary award needs to be higher than what the Family Court awarded. In addition, the judges indicated that the compensation was impacted by the length of time the abuse persisted; the couple married in 1992, the infamous letter written in 1998, the husband left the house in 2000 and from 2003 there was total estrangement between the two. And yet, they were only divorced in 2005. Therefore, every month the wife’s damages were exacerbated, particularly since one of his stated goals was to prevent her from actualizing her legal rights.
For the District Court, the fact that her autonomy was denied, her dignity trampled and her body damaged meant that her pain and suffering was such that she deserves compensation at the highest end of the scale in terms of compensation for pain and suffering. Interestingly, it does not seem from the decision that there was an expert opinion submitted to assess the damage, and both courts seem to have relied purely on testimony of the parties and their witnesses. In any case, the appeals court was unequivocal in its position that the compensation awarded by the Family Court did not adequately reflect the woman’s suffering.
Similarly, in sending the letter to his wife’s father, the actual intention of the husband was to both denigrate the plaintiff as well as to infringe upon her privacy. This, in addition to the element of extortion involved, in that his stated goal was to prevent her from taking action against him. Therefore, the District Court awarded the statutory maximum for slander without the need to prove damages – 50,000 shekels for each instance.
Kudos to the courts – at both levels – and kudos to the woman for having the courage to pursue this suit. In encourage people who have suffered abuse to sue for compensation; most don’t have the emotional energy to do so, though one of my clients wrote about the cathartic impact of doing so.
Let’s hope that this latest decision portends well for all those victims of abuse, whether physical or emotional.