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Time to stop family violence

News

Cite as: April 2015 89 (4) LIJ, p.27

Celebrated judge, academic and lawyer Marcia Neave leads Victoria's first Royal Commission into Family Violence. 

Marcia Neave will go from bench to public gallery in her role leading the Royal Commission into Family Violence. As part of her investigations, Commissioner Neave will sit in on Victoria’s busiest magistrates’ courts and watch what unfolds.

Victims, their alleged abusers, lawyers and others will come under the watchful gaze of the former Court of Appeal judge as she goes about filling her remit – finding ways to prevent family violence, the scourge which costs Australia $15 billion a year or 1.1 per cent of GDP.

“We need to go along and sit in on some of the busy courts. We will be visiting three or four courts in the city and regional areas. We will be making our own observations and we will talk to court personnel, duty lawyers and registrars. That’s going to be a really important part of our learning experience, we will get the feeling for what’s happening,” Commissioner Neave said.

“It would also be very interesting to see a busy police station, that’s something we will think about doing.”

How Victorian courts manage family violence issues is just one element of the $36 million Royal Commission, which is to make recommendations that will influence generational change to prevent and respond to family violence.

It is, by any measure, a huge task, but Commissioner Neave is perhaps better qualified than most to examine violence against women and children and ways to stop it, having spent much of her long career doing just that.

The celebrated judge, academic and lawyer was foundation chair of the Victorian Law Reform Commission, conducting inquiries into sexual offences, homicide and disability. She also led a government inquiry into prostitution.

In establishing a preventative framework, Commissioner Neave, and part-time deputy commissioners Patricia Faulkner and Tony Nicholson, will consult widely throughout family violence systems. They will consider written submissions, undertake research, examine overseas experience and hold public hearings, consultations and roundtable discussions. The role of hospitals, GPs, women’s refuges, education, rehabilitation programs, police responses and resourcing, intervention orders, courts and sentencing will all come under the microscope. Successful public health campaigns – .05 and HIV Aids – will also be considered.

Nothing is off limits in the search for practical ways to support victims and improve early intervention and integration and coordination of short and long-term response efforts.

All of which makes the Commission’s timeframe – to report and make recommendations by 29 February 2016 – tight. The clock is ticking, and it’s no surprise that in an interview with Commissioner Neave in week two of the inquiry, time is of the essence.

“It is big. But there is a good deal of knowledge out there, so to some extent we are pulling all that together,” Commissioner Neave said.

“Our focus is, what’s working, what isn’t, what are the gaps, the inefficiencies. What is the scope of prevention and what can be improved?”

Commissioner Neave said the justice system’s lack of an integrated information system was a problem. “You still have silos between the information received and what a magistrate gets,” she said, referring to the multiple courses of action which might be happening concurrently in civil and criminal jurisdictions but not necessarily known about in one place.

“What information is available to magistrates? What do they have before them when they are considering whether to grant bail for an offence, say a burglary or aggravated assault, which is not apparent in a family violence offence? A street assault on a stranger might be treated differently to a family violence assault. Police and courts systems have to be co-ordinated.”

Expanded use of technology is an aspect Commissioner Neave is keen to explore in the context of court safety.

“We are bringing people into environments which may not be safe. In some of our regional courts there isn’t sufficient separation between the parties. We can’t rebuild every courthouse and I wonder if technology might be the answer. Children can now give evidence remotely.”

Commissioner Neave, who once taught family law, said she was interested to know how legal professionals learned how to deal with family violence.

“We need to make sure lawyers understand the dynamics of family violence. I’m interested to learn how people learn about this, apart from just doing it, and whether they are well-equipped. How do they recognise an issue? How do they respond to a client using the law as a mechanism to harass somebody? It’s a tricky question. I also encourage submissions from individual lawyers.”

Commissioner Neave said change would come, but not quickly.

“We are dealing with an entrenched issue that has been around for hundreds of years.

“Family violence has been categorised as private. We need to make clear that if you know it’s happening next door or in the next street, don’t turn a blind eye, say something and offer help.

“And we need to look at cultures in society which encourage the bullying of women and think about how we can change them because it can quite easily turn into family violence. We need women to stand up to bullies publicly and we need men to call it, too.”

Carolyn Ford

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