4. Victoria’s family violence and victim assistance system

Introduction

  1. 4.1 The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence (the Royal Commission) acknowledged that for victims of family violence there is no single pathway into the ‘family violence system’.1 Instead, the system is made up of a number of distinct but often overlapping parts.2
  2. 4.2 Broadly, the family violence ‘system’ comprises:
  • specialist family violence (including specialist women’s and children’s) services
  • police
  • courts and legal services
  • victim support services (including specialist sexual assault services)
  • child protection and family services
  • housing and homelessness services
  • health services (including mental health, drug and alcohol services).3
  1. 4.3 Support can be accessed via multiple ‘doors’ and at different points or stages. Victims may have only one touch point in the system or may access different components of it simultaneously.4
  2. 4.4 This chapter provides a brief overview of the key aspects of this system that are relevant to this reference: specialist family violence services, the police, the courts, legal services and victim support services. These parts of the system intersect either directly or indirectly with state-funded financial assistance under the Victims of Crime Assistance Act 1996 (Vic) (the Act).5

Specialist family violence services

  1. 4.5 Specialist family violence services are predominantly community-based services whose core business is working with women and children.6 There are 28 specialist family violence support services in Victoria.7
  2. 4.6 Specialist family violence services are generally government-funded and provide:
  • emergency assistance (for example, following a referral from police), including via a 24-hour telephone service
  • case management or specialist support/outreach
  • accommodation assistance
  • counselling.
  1. 4.7 Specialist family violence services administer the government’s family violence flexible support packages which assist victims to escape violence by helping them meet expenses such as rental or relocation costs, clothing and books for children or security measures to improve safety at home.8
  2. 4.8 The Victorian Law Reform Commission (the Commission) heard during preliminary consultations that some specialist family violence services advise victims of family violence about the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal (VOCAT), and in some circumstances, may assist them to prepare an application or access legal assistance to do so. However, the Commission was also told that VOCAT is not usually a core part of their service as women and children often require urgent case management, housing, financial or counselling assistance, and that the VOCAT process can take time and can be complicated for non-legal services to assist with. This means VOCAT is often not pursued immediately, limiting its ability to assist family violence victims during this ‘crisis’ stage.

The police

  1. 4.9 Victoria Police is often the first point of contact for victims of family violence. The Victoria Police Code of Practice for the Investigation of Family Violence (the Code of Practice) and the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (Vic) together provide the legislative and procedural framework for police responses to both victims and perpetrators.9
  2. 4.10 Victoria Police has established specific roles and organisational structures to support an enhanced response to family violence. This includes the appointment of family violence liaison officers and family violence advisers, and the establishment of family violence teams and a Family Violence Coordination Unit.10 In 2015, Victoria Police established Australia’s first Family Violence Command to assist Victoria Police to develop a more effective response to family violence.11 The command acts as a central point of accountability for family violence within Victoria Police.12
  3. 4.11 As outlined further below, police have a number of options to respond to victims and perpetrators, including pursuing civil avenues on behalf of victims to protect their safety, as well as criminal options to address perpetrator offending. In addition, police may facilitate referrals to other services within the family violence or broader service system.
  4. 4.12 Victoria Police’s website states that all victims of family violence have the right to access specialist family violence support services and that police will offer direct referrals to these services. VOCAT is listed as a specific point of referral for family violence victims.13

Civil responses

  1. 4.13 Civil responses available to police include issuing a family violence safety notice or applying for a family violence intervention order under the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (Vic).14
  2. 4.14 Family violence safety notices are now the most common civil action taken by police.15Family violence safety notices enable police to place immediate restrictions on a perpetrator when attending a family violence incident outside of court hours.16 Family violence safety notices provide immediate protection for an affected family member because a police officer can include in the notice protections similar to those in an intervention order, such as excluding a respondent from the family home. Family violence safety notices can be made without the consent of the victim.17 A family violence safety notice also operates as an application for a family violence intervention order and as a summons for the respondent to attend court.18 Police may also apply on victims’ behalf for a family violence intervention order.19

Criminal responses

  1. 4.15 Under the Code of Practice, police are required to pursue criminal charges where there is evidence of a criminal offence, regardless of civil options also pursued.20
  2. 4.16 Criminal options include pursuing charges for breaches of a family violence intervention order or a family violence safety notice.21 The Code of Conduct requires police to lay charges for breaches of a family violence intervention order or a family violence safety notice.22

The courts and legal services

Courts

  1. 4.17 As noted in its submission to the Royal Commission, a high proportion of the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria’s work is dedicated to family violence.23 As such, the Magistrates’ Court has established specialist family violence responses, most notably the Family Violence Court Division and the Specialist Family Violence Service.
  2. 4.18 Currently, the Family Violence Court Division operates out of two Magistrates’ Court locations and the Specialist Family Violence Service operates out of three.24 There are plans to expand the Specialist Family Violence Service model to a further five court locations by 2019.25
  3. 4.19 While the Family Violence Court Division and Specialist Family Violence Service are constituted (and operate) differently, they both aim to promote and enhance the safety of victims and make access to court easier.
  4. 4.20 The Family Violence Court Division has been operating since June 2005 at the Ballarat and Heidelberg Magistrates’ Courts as a separate division of the court established under the Magistrates’ Court Act 1989 (Vic).26 Features of the Family Violence Court Division include specially appointed and gazetted magistrates, dedicated family violence registrars, applicant and respondent support workers and a range of specialist outreach workers for both applicants and respondents.27 Magistrates are able to hear related matters at the same time as intervention order matters; this includes family law, VOCAT and criminal matters.28 Alternative arrangements are available for victims to give evidence and eligible respondents can be ordered to participate in a men’s behaviour change program.29
  5. 4.21 The Specialist Family Violence Service is not a separate division of the Magistrates’ Court, but is a specialist initiative established in the Frankston, Sunshine and Werribee courts between 2005 and 2006. Key features include dedicated family violence registrars and applicant support workers, as well as specially trained court staff and magistrates.30 Magistrates in the Specialist Family Violence Service cannot mandate participation in a men’s behaviour change program.31
  6. 4.22 Given the volume of family violence-related work across Magistrates’ Court locations, and the limited court locations of both the Family Violence Court Division and Specialist Family Violence Service, the majority of family violence matters continue to be dealt with in the mainstream Magistrates’ Courts.32 However, as noted above, the Victorian Government has recently announced the expansion of specialist family violence courts.33
  7. 4.23 Of particular relevance to this reference is VOCAT. As discussed in Chapter 2, VOCAT is a separate jurisdiction and is constituted by magistrates of the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria. VOCAT operates in all 51 Magistrates’ Court venues across Victoria.34
  8. 4.24 Specialist approaches to family violence in other Victorian courts is limited. The County Court has identified concerns that it does not have family violence risk assessment or case management processes.35 There are no specialist approaches to family violence in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s submission to the Royal Commission emphasised that although the matters coming before the Trial Division of its criminal court are the most serious in nature, the numbers are small and predominantly concern homicide.36

Legal services

  1. 4.25 Victims of family violence access legal services to assist with a range of separate, yet often interrelated, matters resulting from family violence. This might include intervention order proceedings, criminal law matters, family law proceedings and VOCAT applications.
  2. 4.26 Victoria Legal Aid and community legal centres provide a range of support and assistance to both victims and perpetrators of family violence, including legal assistance in family violence intervention order matters and criminal charges relating to family violence, such as breaches of family violence intervention orders or other criminal acts.
  3. 4.27 Specialist legal services also provide enhanced support and assistance for particular groups. Women’s Legal Service Victoria provides support only to female clients and the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service provides support predominantly to Aboriginal clients, although some clients may be non-Aboriginal but have Aboriginal children.
  4. 4.28 Importantly, legal services also assist victims of crime to access VOCAT by completing VOCAT applications and supporting documentation as well as representing victims and making submissions at VOCAT hearings. These services may be delivered by private practitioners as well as Victoria Legal Aid or Community Legal Centres.

Victim and witness assistance

  1. 4.29 Support for victims and witnesses in Victoria is delivered predominantly through government agencies and government-funded programs administered by community organisations.37
  2. 4.30 The Department of Justice and Regulation coordinates the delivery of:
  • the Victims of Crime Helpline
  • the Victims Assistance Program (VAP)
  • the Victims Register
  • the Prisoner Compensation Quarantine Fund
  • the Child Witness Service.38
  1. 4.31 With the exception of the Child Witness Service, these programs and initiatives are coordinated by the Victims Support Agency (VSA) within the Department of Justice and Regulation.
  2. 4.32 The VAP provides a range of practical support, information and assistance, including assistance with VOCAT applications. Services are for victims of violent crime, including family violence victims.
  3. 4.33 Witness assistance in Victoria is provided by the Child Witness Service (part of the Department of Justice and Regulation) and the Office of Public Prosecutions’ Witness Assistance Service. While family violence victims are potentially able to get assistance through the Witness Assistance Service, this service only provides assistance for witnesses in prosecutions pursued by the Director of Public Prosecutions.39

Footnotes

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