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VLRC: Lessons from overseas

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Cite as: (2004) 78(3) LIJ, p. 88

A Canadian court has led the way in dealing with family violence matters.

As reported in the LIJ,[1] the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) is currently reviewing the Crimes (Family Violence) Act 1987 (Vic) (the Act). The terms of reference for the review, set by Attorney-General Rob Hulls, require the VLRC to identify any procedural, administrative and legislative changes which may be needed to ensure that the Act provides the best possible response to the problem of family violence in Victoria.

Therefore, in addition to reviewing the substantive provisions of the Act, the VLRC is examining the context in which family violence laws are administered. As part of this investigation the VLRC is looking into whether a specialised approach to dealing with family violence proceedings is warranted, and if so, what the critical components of such an approach might be.

Specialised courts

As awareness of family violence has increased, numerous jurisdictions in Australia and internationally have sought to improve the justice system’s responsiveness to family violence by creating specialised family violence courts.

The features of family violence courts vary significantly. Some “courts” are predominantly an administrative mechanism for listing family violence cases at a certain time. This already occurs at a number of courts in Victoria, in accordance with the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria family violence and stalking protocols. Other features of family and domestic violence courts include:

  • the assignment of specialised judicial officers to hear family violence matters;
  • the provision for a single court to exercise a number of jurisdictions concurrently, so that, for example, intervention order applications, crimes compensation claims and criminal charges may be heard by one court;
  • purpose-built buildings and facilities to maximise security and safety;
  • the provision of court-based support and assistance programs for people who have experienced family violence and who attend court as applicants or witnesses;
  • coordination or collaboration between the court and other agencies involved in responding to family violence, including the police, corrections, women’s services, children’s services and men’s behaviour change programs; and
  • specialised processes and procedures designed to minimise delays and to improve the impact of family violence related legal proceedings on individuals, predominantly women and children, who have experienced family violence.

Family violence courts in Victoria

In November 2002, the Victorian government allocated $5.2 million over four years to fund the establishment of a Family Violence Court as a division of the Magistrates’ Court. A reference group, chaired by Chief Magistrate Ian Gray and comprising representatives from courts, government departments and non-government agencies, has been established to provide advice about an appropriate model for the court. It is expected that two pilot courts, one in the metropolitan area and one in regional Victoria, will be established later this year.

The Canadian experience

Given the level of attention being given to these issues in Victoria, the VLRC decided to provide people working in the area with an opportunity to hear first-hand about one of the earliest family violence courts. In conjunction with the Victims Referral and Assistance Service, the VLRC arranged for Dr Jane Ursel to visit Melbourne to share her expertise in the operation of the Family Violence Court in Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.

Dr Ursel is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Manitoba University and the Director of Resolve (Research and Education for Solutions to Violence and Abuse). She has been the principal investigator of the Winnipeg Family Violence Court in Manitoba.

In 1990 Manitoba was the first jurisdiction in North America to introduce specialised criminal courts for the processing of family violence cases. Criteria for entry to the court are cases in which the victim is in a relationship of trust, dependency and/or kinship with the accused. As a result, the court hears all cases of partner abuse, child abuse and elder abuse. The court was developed to reduce lengthy delays, create a sensitive and supportive environment for witnesses who had experienced family violence, and provide more consistent and appropriate sentencing. Since the court’s inception, Dr Ursel has led a team of researchers who have been collecting data on all cases processed by the court. This study is the only longitudinal court study of its kind in Canada.

At the time of writing, Dr Ursel was scheduled to provide information about the Winnipeg Family Violence Court and the mechanisms used to achieve its three goals at a workshop in Melbourne on 13 February 2004. She was to present data from her 13-year study, including information about the characteristics of parties appearing in the court, the outcomes of proceedings before the court and the shifts in sentencing that have occurred in the court over time. The workshop aimed to stimulate further thinking about the options for improving legal responses to family violence in Victoria.

Contributed by the VICTORIAN LAW REFORM COMMISSION. The VLRC will be conducting several rounds of consultations on the Act during 2004. To be kept informed about the progress of the review, please telephone the VLRC on 8619 8619 with your contact details.

[1] August 2003 LIJ, p89.


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