Stronger Communities Legislation Amendment (Domestic Violence) Bill 2020

Today, after decades of campaigning by domestic violence services and frontline workers, Abigail secured a number of amendments that would ensure victim-survivors of domestic abuse were protected from being directly cross-examined by their abusers. She also secured a number of other amendments that will allow the court to move proceedings in-camera to support the wellbeing of the victim-survivor seeking justice.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD (18:21:23): On behalf of The Greens, I make a contribution to debate on the Stronger Communities Legislation Amendment (Domestic Violence) Bill 2020. The statistics around the prevalence of domestic violence and abuse in this country are devastating. One in six men and one in five women in Australia have reported psychological or emotional abuse by a current or former partner; one in six women and one in 16 men have reported physical or sexual violence by a current or former partner; and this year alone 41 women have been murdered in acts of domestic violence. That is nearly one woman a week. Domestic violence and abuse does not discriminate; it happens across all age groups. It happens to people both rich and poor; it happens to men; it happens to non-binary and gender-diverse people; it happens to women; it happens to women of colour, to Indigenous women and to white women. In fact, almost every Australian will have or will know someone who has been subjected to domestic violence and abuse.

Those statistics are just the cases that we know about. For every victim-survivor who comes forward we know that there are many, many more. There are many reasons people do not report: the enduring cultural stigma around domestic violence and abuse is certainly one of them; the profound and lasting psychological and emotional impacts that abuse has on victim-survivors is another. But one of the core barriers, and one that we can begin to address in this place, is the entrenched hostility of legal institutions towards victim-survivors—the incapacity and unwillingness to support, believe and empower victim-survivors to seek justice. The bill before us today seeks to do some of that vital work.

For a start, the bill will finally allow victim-survivors of domestic violence and abuse to give evidence in a closed court or to utilise a remote audiovisual link or other similar technology. This is a vital and long overdue reform that has been called for by organisations such as Women's Safety NSW and the Women's Legal Service NSW and builds upon the current practice of allowing victim-survivors of sexual assault or harassment to give their evidence in such a manner. We know that for victim-survivors, particularly for those where abuse has been prolonged and sustained, delivering evidence can lead to re‑traumatisation and intense psychological distress. The Greens strongly support this step forward.

The bill also strengthens provisions around apprehended domestic violence orders [ADVOs] to allow for them to be more effectively implemented. The changes proposed here will ensure that when an ADVO is ordered against a perpetrator of domestic violence and abuse who is serving a prison sentence, it will continue to be active for at least two years at the conclusion of that sentence. This is an important reform, as we know very well that the immediate period following release is one of immense danger to victim-survivors, who face a heightened risk of stalking, abuse, harassment, rape and, in the most extreme cases, murder.

Other important changes to ADVOs include more discretionary powers for police to order and enforce provisional ADVOs and for courts to waive stringent requirements that currently lead to provisional ADVOs being invalidated if the Local Court system fails to see the matter within the appropriate time limit. Requirements, such as the need for victim-survivors who have a provisional ADVO taken out against the perpetrator to attend a local court within 28 days of the issuing of the order, actively disadvantage the victim-survivors, especially if they are a primary carer of children or if abuse has left them without a car, a driver licence, money or the means to get to a court. Stringent requirements like these have acted as barriers to justice. These are, again, long overdue administrative reforms that have been sought by those in the sector for quite some time.

The bill has a number of other amendments but the last key change I emphasise is this emerging recognition that companion animals play a key role in many ongoing cases of domestic violence and abuse. The proposed amendment to the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 identifies the link between domestic violence and animal abuse and prohibits the harming or threat of harming any animal belonging to or in the possession of a victim‑survivor. This amendment forms part of a key recommendation arising from the recently released report by Domestic Violence NSW [DVNSW] entitledAnimals and people experiencing domestic and family violence: How their safety and wellbeing are interconnected. The report found that companion animals were present in 70 per cent of domestic violence and abuse cases in Australia. It also found that of mothers experiencing abuse who were accessing support from a specialist domestic and family violence agency, over half of them reported animal abuse and nearly half of the victim-survivors reported threats of animal abuse. The report stated:

Perpetrators use violence towards animals as a form of control and power over partners and family members during the relationship and after separation. A New Zealand survey of over 900 victim survivors found that the violence was driven by: "control and intimidation, assertions of supremacy, and silencing of disclosures". Violence against animals is one of the three strongest risk factors for domestic and family violence lethality: access to weapons, suicide threats and threats to kill or mutilate the family pet. Perpetrators who abuse animals use controlling behaviours and forms of violence towards their partners that are, "significantly more dangerous, of greater severity and more varied in nature compared with those DFV perpetrators who do not abuse animals." Perpetrators of domestic and family violence against animals are five times more likely to physically or sexually abuse their partners and are more likely to use stalking and emotional violence.

It is for those reasons, and for many more found in the DVNSW report, that this recognition is an important step forward. Overall, the reforms found within this bill are welcomed, despite being long overdue. The Greens will support this legislation today. However—and it is a substantial however—this bill simply does not do enough. The bill fails to adequately address substantial criticisms raised by stakeholders, victim-survivors and frontline support workers and talks a strong game without ever committing to the funding that is urgently needed to implement these overdue reforms.

It is comfortable to simply tweak around the edges without ever meaningfully pursuing the radical cultural change that needs to occur within both the judicial system and the Police Force more broadly if we are to address the epidemic of domestic violence and abuse in New South Wales. What are these cultural problems and how do they manifest? Women's Safety NSW recently released two position papers which draw on the shared experiences of frontline family violence workers who support 50,000 women each year and the personal testimony of 59 victim-survivors. It identifies that one of the key problems is the ongoing mis‑identification of the "primary aggressor" in a situation. Almost three-quarters of frontline workers surveyed by Women's Safety NSW "expressed that they had encountered the mis‑identification of the primary aggressor in some way". This means that women, who are overwhelmingly the victim-survivors of domestic violence and abuse, are being charged with domestic violence themselves when they physically retaliate or defend themselves from attacks from their abuser.

From 2001 to 2012 the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research reported an increase from 10 per cent to 18 per cent of women being identified as offenders. In 2019 that number climbed to 22 per cent. While it is true that in some cases the woman will be the abuser, the trend demonstrates the superficial understanding that our judicial systems and police as frontline responders have of the pattern of behaviour that constitutes domestic violence and abuse, and how perpetrators enact power and control over their victims. An article in last weekend's edition ofThe Saturday Paper reported comments of the CEO of Women's Safety NSW, Hayley Foster. It stated:

"We have a really incident‑based framework for addressing domestic and family violence," Foster says.

"Some of those can look at a pattern of behaviour over time, like stalking and intimidation, but there are many, many aspects of domestic and family violence and abuse related to coercive control that cannot be picked up by those intimidation and stalking offences.

"And what we find is that many of the clients will have a whole raft of information and evidence around their experience of abuse over time but the police have kind of got one hand tied behind their back because it is not admissible evidence."

Whilst simultaneously calling out the continued shortcomings, we can recognise that over time the role police play as first responders has improved. If victim-survivors do not trust the police to handle their reports of domestic violence and abuse with care, consideration and understanding, they will continue to endure the abuse carried out against them, instead of coming forward to seek justice. Even when they do come forward finally and enter the courtroom seeking protection and justice, victim-survivors come up against the slowly grinding bureaucracy of the judicial system. Ill‑equipped magistrates and courtrooms without adequate knowledge of domestic violence and abuse mean that cases are prolonged, mishandled and often re-traumatising for the victim-survivors.

According to Women's Safety NSW, almost 30 per cent of victim survivors were forced to wait three to four hours before having their matter addressed in local courts. Some 8 per cent reported waiting for five to six hours. Another 3 per cent waited for over six hours. That is not even to mention the complete absence of planning to ensure the safety of victim-survivors as they wait for their matters to be heard. For those and other reasons The Greens will move a series of amendments to the bill. Those amendments have been requested primarily by stakeholders in the sector who have a deep concern about the superficiality of the reforms proposed in the current bill.

I thank all the organisations who have made themselves available to me and my team, and who have provided their expertise and knowledge surrounding the bill and its reforms. In particular, I thank Delia Donovan, the CEO of Domestic Violence NSW; Hayley Foster, the CEO of Women's Safety NSW; and Liz Snell, the Law Reform and Policy Co-ordinator at Women's Legal Service NSW. I also thank the excellent teams who work with them. So often victim-survivors do not seek justice simply because they do not trust the police or our court systems. Time and time again we hear stories of police dismissing violence against women. We hear of magistrates failing to grasp adequately the complexities present in ongoing abusive relationships.

We hear of court proceedings where overwhelmingly clear evidence goes unrecognised due to technicalities. Those embedded structural deficits in our systems erode trust and faith, and only serve to send the violence and abuse so prevalent in our society further underground. Although the bill takes us forward, it does not take us anywhere close to where we should be. Sweeping cultural and structural change is required for us to create a system that supports and believes in victim-survivors and empowers them to seek justice. When first responders dismiss the realities of victim-survivors, when the gears of our ill‑equipped courtrooms grind up what little of their hope remains, the end result is one that we all as a society collectively pay the price for.

For the full transcript of the debate visit the NSW Parliament website.

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