13. Awareness of VOCAT and accessibility for family violence victims

 

Introduction

  1. 13.1 This chapter considers what proportion of victims of family violence access the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal (VOCAT). This analysis explores the percentage of current VOCAT matters that relate to family violence. It also contrasts the recorded incidents of family violence in Victoria with the number of VOCAT applications.
  2. 13.2 This analysis also seeks to ascertain how aware the community is of VOCAT, and how accessible VOCAT is to family violence victims. These are different matters to the legislative barriers that may be encountered after a victim applies to VOCAT and which were examined in Part Two.
  3. 13.3 This chapter considers victims’ awareness of VOCAT, their knowledge of the scheme and the extent to which access to the scheme is supported by the broader family violence service and support system. Consideration of these issues will enable the Victorian Law Reform Commission (the Commission) to seek that any proposed changes to the Victims of Crime Assistance Act 1996 (Vic) (the Act) are meaningfully implemented for victims of family violence.
  4. 13.4 Finally, this chapter poses a number of questions for consideration.

VOCAT and family violence statistics

  1. 13.5 During preliminary consultations, the Commission was told that there appeared to be relatively few VOCAT applications compared to the number of reported incidents of family violence in Victoria.
  2. 13.6 To understand whether victims of family violence are aware of VOCAT and their eligibility to seek financial assistance under the Act, the Commission has attempted to assess the percentage of VOCAT matters related to family violence, as well as the percentage of family violence incidents reported to police each year that might flow through to applications to VOCAT.
  3. 13.7 As with many other aspects of data collection with respect to family violence, it is hard to find comprehensive, reliable data about the use of VOCAT by victims of family violence.1 The available data, which the Commission has used below, has limitations. The Commission acknowledges these limitations and also acknowledges that some assumptions have been made in interpreting the available data. These are also noted below.
  4. 13.8 VOCAT data indicates that of the 6221 VOCAT applications lodged in 2015–16, 388 (6.2 per cent) were in relation to ‘family violence’.2 However, family violence as a category was not added to VOCAT’s case management system until part way through the 2015–16 financial year and so not all family violence cases for that period have been captured in the data. As such, this figure of 388 may not be an accurate indication of the number of family violence applications lodged annually with VOCAT.
  5. 13.9 Even if this figure is doubled to attempt to provide a more representative annual figure, the number of family violence applications would still not account for more than 10–15 per cent of the VOCAT applications lodged in the 2015–16 period. This figure falls short of VOCAT’s previous estimate that around a quarter of all applications involve family violence.3 However, given the data limitations, it is difficult at this stage to definitively ascertain the percentage of VOCAT matters that relate to family violence.
  6. 13.10 Taking a broader view, Victoria’s Crime Statistics Agency reports 78,628 ‘family incidents’ being recorded by Victoria Police in 2016.4 A ‘family incident’ is an incident where a Victoria Police Risk Assessment and Risk Management Report (also known as an L17 form) is completed and recorded on Victoria Police’s database LEAP.5 Under Victoria Police’s Code of Practice for the Investigation of Family Violence, an L17 must be completed for every family violence incident reported to police.6 Therefore, ‘family incidents’ are incidents of family violence recorded by Victoria Police, although not all such incidents involve criminal offences.
  7. 13.11 It is recognised that not all of the 78,628 family incidents recorded by police would fall within the scope of VOCAT.7 However, the small number of family violence-related VOCAT applications recorded for 2015–16 appears disproportionate to the number of family violence incidents recorded by police for the year.8

Awareness of the Act

  1. 13.12 Awareness of compensation and state-funded assistance has been raised as one of the most critical barriers to the effectiveness of any financial assistance or compensation scheme.9
  2. 13.13 The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence (the Royal Commission) found that some victims were unaware of their eligibility under the Act for assistance as a victim of family violence.10 One victim only found out that she could make an application to VOCAT as a victim of family violence after she had applied to VOCAT for a separate matter.11 Some service providers confirmed to the Royal Commission that VOCAT was underused by victims of family violence because there are limited referral pathways to VOCAT.12
  3. 13.14 Research conducted by Women’s Legal Service Victoria has found that many victims of family violence are simply unaware of the existence of VOCAT.13 Women’s Legal Service


    Victoria has recommended that any reform to the Act to improve accessibility for victims of family violence must also be accompanied by awareness raising, to ensure family violence victims are aware of their entitlements under the Act.14
  4. 13.15 Similarly, research conducted by the Victims Support Agency in 2011 found a general lack of understanding of VOCAT and the process, even among a sample group of victims who had been through the VOCAT process.15 Some participants were unaware of VOCAT as a separate legal entity, referring to the process and assistance provided as being provided by ‘Victims of Crime’.16 Many participants in the Victims Support Agency research highlighted that they felt there was a lack of public awareness of VOCAT and that because of this, it was likely that many victims would be missing out on assistance. Some described learning about VOCAT only ‘by chance’.17
  5. 13.16 During preliminary consultations, the Commission was informed of concerns about the lack of information about VOCAT in accessible formats and languages other than English. Some agencies were concerned that it did not seem to be a core part of any agency’s role to inform victims about VOCAT and provide written information or referrals.

Understanding of the Act and access to VOCAT

  1. 13.17 The Act has been described as ‘complex and difficult for victims to understand’.18 A victim’s experience of VOCAT is therefore likely to be enhanced by victim support and the availability of legal representation.19
  2. 13.18 VOCAT has emphasised its close links with support agencies.20 However, these support mechanisms are not integrated with VOCAT and so victims still have to access multiple services.
  3. 13.19 During preliminary consultations, the Commission heard that specialist family violence services or Victims Assistance Program (VAP) workers provide support and information to help victims of family violence access VOCAT. The Commission also heard that victims of family violence are unlikely to contact or navigate the VOCAT system without a lawyer. This was described as a barrier because some victims will not be able to access a lawyer. The Commission was told that sometimes lawyers will not take on VOCAT-related work because the legal costs awarded are too low given the amount of work often required.
  4. 13.20 Research by the Victims Support Agency highlights concerns with the legalistic nature of the VOCAT process. Some victims found it difficult to obtain a solicitor who would take on their VOCAT application, particularly in regional areas, while others who could find a solicitor found them difficult to deal with, non-communicative, difficult to contact, dismissive, insensitive, and only interested in money.21
  5. 13.21 The Commission was also informed during preliminary consultations that although the VOCAT application form itself might be easy enough to work through and complete without legal support, the information that is then requested by VOCAT can be overwhelming and often requires legal representation.
  6. 13.22 Research has highlighted victim frustration with the system of referral to VOCAT. This affects victims’ ability to access VOCAT in a timely and helpful way. As previously discussed, not all specialist family violence services advise victims of VOCAT or assist


    victims to access VOCAT. Women’s Legal Service Victoria has also found that victims of family violence experience frustration at having to go through ‘multiple doors’ to access financial support.22

Experience in other jurisdictions

  1. 13.23 In contrast to Victoria, some states and territories have combined victim support and compensation/financial assistance schemes.
  2. 13.24 New South Wales has a Victim Support Scheme which incorporates financial assistance and other aspects of victim support. Victims are allocated a support coordinator who develops a tailored plan to guide each victim through the criminal justice and human services system. Part of this care package may include financial assistance for immediate needs and economic loss, and a recognition payment.23 Victims are advised that they do not need a lawyer as their allocated support coordinator will assist with their claim and Victims Services can obtain police reports, court papers and medical records with a victim’s consent.24
  3. 13.25 Similarly, in the Australian Capital Territory, Victim Support ACT administers the financial assistance scheme as well as managing and delivering victim case management services. Clients registered for case management can receive services such as assessment, court support, advocacy and therapeutic services.25 This new Victims of Crime Financial Assistance Scheme was introduced in July 2016. Victim Support ACT describes the scheme as reducing barriers for victims of crime by separating the process from the court system and reducing reliance on legal representation.26 Victim Support ACT assessors process applications for financial assistance and the Victims of Crime Commissioner, the head of Victim Support ACT, is the final decision maker.27

Discussion and options for reform

  1. 13.26 It is not clear whether a substantial number of family violence victims who might be potentially eligible for assistance under the Act are aware of VOCAT. Additional barriers such as difficulty obtaining legal representation and lack of accessible information might also be affecting victim awareness and the number of victims who apply.
  2. 13.27 This issue is not unique or new. VOCAT’s Koori List was introduced because VOCAT ascertained that while the Aboriginal community was disproportionately affected by violent crime, they were also not accessing the assistance available through VOCAT at a corresponding level.
  3. 13.28 The Commission is considering how aspects of the current system work together, including VOCAT, lawyers, victim support and family violence services, and how better integration might improve knowledge about and accessibility of the service for victims of family violence.
  4. 13.29 The Commission raises these issues of awareness and accessibility to determine whether changes to improve access for family violence victims under the Act might only be legislative in nature, or whether other changes to support legislative reform might also need to be considered.
  5. 13.30 The Commission seeks the views of victims, persons affected, professionals, stakeholders and the community on these issues and options. Specific questions for consideration are set out below.

Questions

  1. 47 How do family violence victims learn about the availability of VOCAT? What is the best way to inform victims of their potential eligibility under the Act?
  2. 48 How should information about VOCAT be made more accessible for victims of family violence, including those speaking languages other than English?
  3. 49 Is the VOCAT system easy to navigate without legal representation? If not, why? How should the system be improved to make it more accessible for victims of family violence without legal representation?
  4. 50 Do victims of family violence find it difficult to secure legal representation? If yes, why? How should this be remedied?
  5. 51 Should the provision of state-funded financial assistance under the Act be better integrated with victim support services or specialist family violence support? If so, how should this be done?
  6. 52 What learnings from the VOCAT Koori List might be able to be applied to improving accessibility and knowledge of the scheme for victims of family violence? Could similar benefits be realised in the family violence space?
  7. 53 What aspects of other jurisdictions’ models should be replicated in Victoria to assist victims of family violence to access VOCAT?

 

Footnotes

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