Each week in Australia at least one woman is killed by her current or former intimate partner (Cussen and Bryant 2015). Between 2002/3 and 2011/12 in Australia 488 women were killed by an intimate partner nationally (Cussen and Bryant 2015). When these statistics are bought to mind it is unsurprising to note that in 2014 family violence was declared a national emergency in Australia (Malone and Phillips 2014). Domestic violence is the leading cause of preventable death and disability among Australian women aged 15-44 (VicHealth 2004).
Increasing recognition of the devastation of family violence in the Australian community and the inadequacy of legal responses to family and domestic violence has animated scholarly debate, captured political and public attention, and prompted the establishment of numerous reviews at the state and national level. These reviews have painted a dull picture of a criminal justice system unable to provide justice for victims, which fails to achieve perpetrator accountability and that is crumbling under the pressure of reduced resources and increased demand. There is a recognised need to transform and significantly improve legal responses to family violence across Australia.
This Report presents the findings of my 2015 Peter Mitchell Churchill Fellowship. Over a 7-week period I visited England, Scotland, United States and Canada to gather knowledge on what Australia could learn from comparative legal responses to intimate partner homicide specifically and family violence more broadly. While it is recognised that focusing on the law alone is not sufficient in improving responses to and the prevention of family violence in Australia, the criminal justice system provides a key opportunity to hold perpetrators to account, to acknowledge victimisation and ensure a person’s safety, and to send a clear message to the community that family violence – in all forms – is unacceptable.
The findings contained within this Report are relevant at the national level and to all Australian state and territory jurisdictions. 22 recommendations are made. These relate to changes to practice, policy and law in Australia and elsewhere. The need for further research in particular areas is also highlighted with the aim of improving the evidence base to inform and enhance legal responses to intimate partner violence.
This Report highlights the value of specialist court responses to intimate partner violence and the need for a nationally consistent approach to family and domestic violence death reviews. Some Australian state and territory jurisdictions have already made progress in both areas and that work should be encouraged. This Fellowship points to gaps in the Australian system and identifies particular opportunities to expand current approaches by learning from international practice. It is argued that there is a need to better integrate specialist court processes in Australia with the aim of minimising the complexities of court processes for victims of family violence.
This Report also urges caution in some areas. It does not recommend the introduction of a specific offence of family and domestic violence or controlling and coercive behaviour nor does it advocate for the introduction of a domestic violence disclosure scheme. In both cases it is recognised that the evidence base supporting the introduction of such reform is underdeveloped and that Australia should wait till the impacts of those reforms emerge in international research and practice.
In making these recommendations, this Fellowship Report aims to inform the much needed transformation of Australian legal responses to intimate partner violence with the aim of better serving the needs of victims, improving prevention practices and ensuring perpetrators are held to account. The Report emphasises that without adequate funding, dedicated resources and specialisation our criminal justice system will continue to provide inadequate responses to victims of family violence.