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What to do about terror at home

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Cite as: March 2015 89 (3) LIJ, p.28

The Royal Commission into Family Violence is an historic opportunity for change. 

The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence follows in the wake of important reforms in response to family violence in this state a decade ago, achieved through the collective work of non-government and government agencies over many years. Many of these reforms focused on better integration of the response systems, the police, family violence services and the court systems. The achievements included the introduction of the Victorian Police Code of Practice for the Investigation of Family Violence, police powers to issue Family Violence Safety Notices, the Family Violence Protection Act, piloting two Family Violence Divisions in the Heidelberg and Ballarat Magistrates’ Courts and specialist family violence services in the Melbourne, Frankston, Sunshine and Werribee Courts, and the development and implementation of a common risk assessment framework (CRAF) to assist in the early identification of those at risk. In many of these initiatives as well as in family violence prevention, Victoria led the nation and there is good reason to be proud.

Nonetheless, the shocking and unacceptable statistics on family violence are evidence that there is still much work to do. One in three Australian women experience violence from a current or former partner; one in five Australian women have experienced sexual violence by the age of 15, and every week, one Australian woman is murdered by their current or former partner.

While family violence reforms are essential to ensuring the long-term safety and wellbeing of women and children affected, to work effectively they must be supported by commensurate funding and resources. Improved responses and growing public awareness of family violence have resulted in a dramatic increase in the demand on services and the court system. Police responses to family violence incidents continue to increase dramatically (50,000 in 2013, a rise of 24 per cent from the previous year, and increasing to 65,393 in 20141) with consequent pressure on the court system. Family violence related matters in court have increased by more than 80 per cent over the past 10 years. Intervention order applications alone have increased by more than 40 per cent since 2007-2008.

Family violence services and the court system are currently inundated by demand as funding has failed to keep step with the changing environment. The Magistrates’ Court Family Violence Divisions have not been extended beyond the original two pilots and the specialist family violence services model has not been adopted in around 50 Magistrates’ Courts across the state. This has resulted in a two-tiered system in which court responses to family violence is determined by postcode. At the same time, community legal services are struggling to meet the demand for legal support in family violence matters, a situation at crisis point for services in regional areas. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family violence prevention legal services in Victoria are being forced to withdraw services as a result of funding cuts.

So the Royal Commission into Family Violence provides an important opportunity to properly review the impact of reforms, shine a spotlight on gaps and flaws in the system and develop better, innovative ways to respond to women and children exposed to family violence. Just as importantly it will offer those who have experienced family violence, and have been through the systems meant to protect them, a chance to share powerful insights into how and where those systems succeed and fail.

In 2013 Domestic Violence Victoria (DV Vic) conducted The Women Steering Justice Reform project and consulted with women who recently experienced the justice system for family violence-related matters. They were looking to the courts for protection and safety as they left their violent relationship. The stories of these women highlight some of the critical areas for attention by the Royal Commission and those working in the justice system more generally.

Some of the key issues that emerged include: the need for effective integration between the Magistrates’ Court and Family Court particularly inconsistencies around family violence protection orders and parenting orders; practical concerns about safety, such as increasing access to remote witness testimony; better training in family violence for all court staff, including judicial and legal professionals; greater communication with and information for women going through the court system and particularly, the need for specialist family violence support workers in the courts.

The importance of providing appropriate support and information to women, and the need for judicial officers to demonstrate understanding and ability to contextualise matters involving family violence cannot be underestimated. Karen, a participant in the DV Vic project, exemplified the way many women experience the legal system: “You don’t realise when you’re walking into court how scary and how daunting it is. And it doesn’t matter whether you walk in with any preconceived ideas, you feel like, when you are in that system, that you have actually done something wrong. You feel like you are indeed being judged.”

The family violence sector, the legal system, the community services sector, the general community and governments at all levels have much to learn from the process, investigations, reporting and recommendations of this Royal Commission into Family Violence. It is an extraordinary opportunity for a root and branch examination of the epidemic of family violence but the commitment to do the work will be nothing without an equally strong and ongoing commitment to properly fund the changes we know are so urgently needed.


FIONA MCCORMACK is the CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria.

  1. http://www.mindyourfamily.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Vic-Police-Family-Violence-MYF-Stephen-Fontana.pdf.

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