Judith Peirce, 1 March 2006
A broad range of behaviour falls under the definition of family violence.
At one end you have the non-physical violence, such as emotional and economic abuse, and at the other end you have, murder.
Women are more likely to be killed by current or former male partners than by anyone else.
When women kill their male partners, more than 70% of them have been victims of family violence.
Family violence is extremely dangerous, which is why the safety of its victims has driven our recommendations for change.
We heard from countless victims during our review, and from Moe to Mildura, Melbourne to Warrnambool, all of them just wanted the violence to stop…to feel safe.
We have recommended the government implements a new Family Violence Act which has victims’ safety at its heart.
Our current Act does not have aims or principles to guide decision makers. Our proposed Act has clear principles that promote respect, responsibility and non-violence.
All the decisions to be made by police, court registrars, and magistrates need to have victims’ safety as the number one consideration.
To do this, everyone involved in decision making needs to understand the dynamics of family violence. About how family violence isn’t a loss of temper but a systematic attempt to control another person; about how victims suffer a loss of self esteem and confidence; about how difficult it is to leave a relationship when the other person threatens to kill you if you do so.
Family violence is a fundamental violation of human rights. Countries that do not take measures to eliminate violence against women are violating international human rights laws.
We have made 153 recommendations to improve the responses to victims from police, courts and the community.
Some of the biggest changes are the establishment of a specialist police prosecution unit, a specialist family violence list in the Magistrates’ Court, the use of exclusion orders which remove the perpetrator from the family home rather than the victims, stricter controls around contact with family violence perpetrators and their children, and access to legal advice and representation.
Our terms of reference asked us to investigate problems faced by children, Indigenous people, immigrant women and people with disabilities.
Children are often not included on intervention orders if they have not been the direct victim of family violence. However, children are at greater risk of violence when their parents separate and child contact handover potentially places mothers at risk. We also believe that orders should be made more often by courts to directly protect children who have ‘heard witnessed or otherwise been exposed to family violence’.
We have recommended that magistrates do two things to better protect victims and their children.
One, they be trained in the impact of family violence on children to understand that contact with the perpetrator of violence is not always in the child’s best interests.
And two, magistrates who do allow child contact must include detailed instructions in the intervention order to govern the handover arrangements and details of how and when contact may occur.
Indigenous people are eight times more likely to be exposed to family violence than others in our community.
We have recommended that the definition of family member be expanded to include Indigenous kinship systems. We call for training for police, registrars and magistrates about the barriers to the justice system that many Indigenous people face. We ask for more funding for organisations to better support Indigenous victims.
People from non-English speaking backgrounds face cultural and linguistic barriers to our justice system. The biggest problem by far is their lack of access to information. We have called for funding of community groups to educate immigrant communities and provide support to family violence victims.
We also need more qualified and independent interpreters in our courts and training in barriers faced by immigrants for police, registrars and magistrates.
People with disabilities and some elderly people are particularly vulnerable to family violence because they may rely on others for their day-to-day survival.
Our new definition of family member includes the paid and unpaid carers of the elderly and people with disabilities.
Organisations need to be funded to help people with disabilities access intervention orders, and information about intervention orders should be published in Braille, large print and audio formats.
We have already started out on our journey to safer family lives. Many initiatives have already been implemented by government, the police and the courts. The police have implemented a code of practice which goes a long way to addressing many of the problems with their responses in the past. The Magistrates’ Court is piloting two specialist family violence courts and three other courts will provide specialist services for victims and respondents in family violence applications.
The change in attitudes to family violence in the past ten years has been extraordinary, and if we maintain our current momentum the next ten years could be a watershed in the way we protect women and children.
The report which is launched today is the culmination of the body of work of the reference team and is the second of our reports to make recommendations for change. The Police Holding Powers Interim Report was completed on 31August 2005 and its recommendations are being implemented in legislation already introduced into Parliament.
Before I introduce our next speaker to you I wish to publicly thank the hundreds of people who have contributed to this work. Many are acknowledged in the report but there are two people who deserve special mention. They are Joanna Carr and Dr Zoë Morrison whose work and commitment has been extraordinary and outstanding.