Reducing the cases of domestic and family violence will require more than legislative reform because laws are only as good as those who enforce them.That’s the message from advocates who say there’s no use strengthening the law unless police officers and the judiciary are also given additional training.
While welcoming a swathe of amendments to the ACT’s family violence law intended to strengthen penalties against perpetrators, they say it’s part of a bigger picture.
Women’s Legal Centre principal solicitor Claudia Maclean said she was not trying to detract from the significance of the bill itself, which did “some great things”.
She said it was about recognising where the law intersected with those who enforced it – the judiciary and the police – and accepting it was one piece of a complex problem.
“Any legislative change … plays an important role in saying ‘this is the standard and we don’t accept family violence as a community’. However, a law is only as good as it’s able to be enforced,” Ms Maclean said.
She said additional ‘trauma-informed’ training for the judiciary and police should be provided.
“There’s research to show victims can often be wrongly identified as perpetrators.
“That’s our concern … what is often misunderstood when police first respond is that an aggressive response is actually a trauma response … and then they’re on this treadmill … which is not addressing the true cause of family violence which we know is extended periods of coalition and controlling behaviour.”
Ms Maclean said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were over-represented in these situations.
“Police are so critical to our response to family violence … they are actually family violence workers,” she said.
“And so what does that entail? What happens when you shift that focus?”
Ms Maclean said it was also important to discuss resourcing and cited the centre’s “patchy” experience with pursuing breaches in family violence orders as an example.
“Police are responding to more serious callouts and are constantly doing this triage. So, if they don’t have the resources to be able to follow up with some of these breaches, they’re not always going to be enforced … the flow-on impact is that the victim-survivors aren’t going to report these breaches.
“You can see how it’s the perfect storm as it leads to distrust of the system.”
It also raises ongoing conversations and concerns about police force numbers in the ACT which are the lowest in the country on a per capita rate.
The Opposition and the Australian Federal Police Association (AFPA) repeatedly call out what they describe as a simple lack of boots on the ground.
“Police do need more efficient systems … and there’s a conversation to be had with them around what resources they need,” Ms Maclean said.
The Family Violence Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 proposes a number of changes to the current legislation aimed at giving magistrates the power to impose harsher sentences on domestic violence perpetrators.
It sets out an aggravated offence scheme that will expand penalties for certain offences when committed in the context of family violence. A number of aggravated family violence offences will also be added to the list that will disqualify some from obtaining a Working with Vulnerable People check.
The bill will create a legislative requirement to review the Family Violence Act 2016 every three years.
The Justice and Safety Committee will report back to the assembly with its findings by 14 April this year.