Addressing family violence in Victoria

Family violence is largely responsible for a 10 percent increase in reported crimes against the person in Victoria. The rise seems largely due to the success of Victoria’s integrated response to family violence. One of the strengths of the response, recognised in the Australian Law Reform Commission and New South Wales Law Reform Commission Final report on family violence, is collaboration among government departments, police, courts and community organisations, with the aim of enhancing protection for women and children and accountability for perpetrators. More victims have therefore been encouraged to report family violence to police or otherwise seek protection. As a result, there has been an explosion in numbers of intervention order matters being heard in magistrates’ courts.

If I were State Attorney-General, I would recognise Victoria’s due diligence obligations concerning violence against women and children. I would work with my Cabinet colleagues to re-prioritise Victoria’s financial commitments in order to address court over-crowding and safety issues. Given that violence against women costs Victoria at least $3.4 billion a year, it makes economic sense to spend more money on assisting victims and preventing violence from happening. I would support expanding applicant duty lawyer programs and rolling out specialist family violence lists and workers, including access to men’s behavior change programs, in all courts, so that family violence victims in rural areas are able to access the same quality of support as in the city. The Department of Justice would also work with the courts so that all magistrates and registrars receive regular specialist family violence training.

We need to do much more to achieve a genuinely seamless system that effectively and sensitively responds to all family violence victims, including those experiencing especially high levels of violence or additional barriers to seeking justice because they are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, from a CALD background, or have disabilities. There must be services in place to address the complex issues often intertwined with family violence, such as alcohol and drug use and mental illness. It is particularly important that these agencies work with other health professionals to develop appropriate training and protocols. I would therefore also work with my fellow Ministers to reinstate meetings of the Family Violence Statewide Advisory Committee so that government and non-government agencies can continue their important conversations.

It is essential that decision-making about policies and strategies is informed by good data, and so I would commit ongoing funding to the Victorian Family Violence Database to be able to continue to produce regular reports, including increasing its capacity to generate more sophisticated analysis of how our courts, police and family violence services are actually operating. I would also recognise the important role played by the Victorian Systemic Review of Family Violence Deaths, which examines where there may have been missed opportunities to protect victims and aims for system accountability. The VSRFVD’s First report tells us that 27 people are killed annually as a result of family violence, and about half of these deaths are intimate partner homicides – one quarter of all Victorian homicides. Men are responsible for 75 percent of intimate partner homicides, and 75 percent of the victims are women.

The VSRFVD also identifies factors and points where women and children are most at risk from being killed. This is very important for improving family violence services’ risk assessment and management so that they can help victims to become safe. Certain risk factors stand out in the Report, including relationship separation and threats of harm that were known to others. Based on this work, I would encourage the Minister for Community Services to finalise the Strengthening Risk Management guidelines, on which work has stalled since 2011. The guidelines must then be rolled out across all services.

Another urgent task is to reinstate the dedicated funding for the VSRFVD, which lapsed in July 2010. It is not enough to express support for continuing this work while expecting the Coroners Court to fund it out of its general budget. The State Coroner indicated in February 2012 that given the other fiscal demands on the Court, it would not be possible to continue the VSRFVD indefinitely without further funding. As Attorney-General, I would recognise that no amount of searching for “efficiencies” in the Court’s operation will meet the cost of growing workloads and the need for public accountability.

Families also need to have access to affordable specialist legal representation to help them navigate the coronial process. They must be able to ask questions about how their relative died and what might have been done differently to avoid them being killed, with the hope of taking some comfort from influencing future death prevention. Lawyers for families, together with public interest interveners, can assist the coroner here by calling expert witnesses and suggesting possible comments and recommendations. I would therefore increase funding to community legal centres and Victorian Legal Aid so that they can better assist families as well as acting as, or for, public interest interveners. The Department of Justice would also work with the Coroners Court and legal services to make sure that families are provided with clear take-home information about how to access legal help.

Largely due to the efforts of the Federation of Community Legal Centres, Victoria is now one of only three states that mandate responses to all coronial recommendations. However, there is no formal system for regularly monitoring whether responses are ever implemented, and assessing how effective they are. An appropriate body must be resourced for this work.

I would also take a leadership role in addressing family violence at national level, by working closely with my colleagues on the Standing Council on Law and Justice for timely and well-resourced implementation of the National plan to reduce violence against women and their children 2010-2022. For example, it is essential that there is a multi-government commitment to establish and support best practice death reviews in all jurisdictions. Similarly, governments must work together with family violence experts to produce and implement comprehensive, evidence-based family violence prevention strategies and programs.

Dr Chris Atmore is a policy officer at the Federation of Community Legal Centres