A new report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that despite recent efforts, rates of partner violence have been fairly stable for the past 15 years. This is against a background of a decline in overall violence.
The report gives a rounded, but sad, picture of domestic and family violence in Australia. 1 in 6 women and 1 in 9 men experience physical or sexual abuse before the age of 15. 1 in 6 women and 1 in 15 men have experienced stalking. 1 in 2 woman and around 1 in 4 men have experienced sexual harassment.
Other research, from the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, reported by Catherine Carpenter, describes the impact of that violence, and the national efforts to counter it.
Catherine Carpenter writes:
The first quantitative assessment using Australian population data of the legal and related problems that coincide with domestic and family violence (DFV) has just been published, and it paints a dark picture.
Women who had experienced DFV in the previous 12 months had an average of 20 legal problems, compared to an average of two legal problems for the rest of the population. In addition to DFV, their legal problems spanned credit and debt, consumer law, employment law, housing, discrimination, health services and government payments, as well as family law.
The findings arise from a subset analysis, published on Monday, of the Legal Australia-Wide Survey: Legal need in Australia (LAW Survey), which was carried out by the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW. The LAW Survey interviewed more than 20,000 people nationally about their legal problems and is the most comprehensive study of legal need in Australia.
Four in five DFV respondents rated at least one of their legal problems as having a severe impact on their everyday life, compared to fewer than one-quarter of other respondents to the LAW Survey. Their legal problems were more likely to lead to stress-related illness, physical ill health, relationship breakdown, loss of income or financial strain, and moving home. Around 1 in 8 respondents who had experienced DFV in the previous 12 months reported that they had been homeless at some point in that period.
Wrap-around services meet needs
The Foundation’s Senior Principal Researcher, Dr Christine Coumarelos, said: ‘The results reinforce the evidence base on wrap-around services better meeting the needs of domestic violence clients, which underpins initiatives such as Domestic Violence Units and Family Advocacy and Support Services in the courts.’
It is a complex policy area and reducing domestic and family violence remains a significant challenge, despite multiple reform efforts over the last decade in Australia. In a report by KPMG in 2016, the cost of DFV to the Australian economy was estimated to be as much as $26 billion per year. The 2015 Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, drew significant national attention to the issue, as did the Victoria Royal Commission into Family Violence which called for a major overhaul of the DFV system in Victoria in 2016. The Victorian Government accepted all 227 of the Victorian Royal Commission’s recommendations, encapsulated in its 10-year plan Ending Family Violence: Victoria’s Plan for Change.
The commitment of all Australian governments to tackling the complex problem of DFV is enshrined in the National plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022. The national plan provides the framework for action by the Commonwealth, state and territory governments, and involves more than $300 million in funding to implement a variety of initiatives in stages via four action plans. The Fourth Action Plan 2019-2022 should be finalised in mid-2019.
Family Violence Prevention Legal Centres
The national plan links with the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) to address high rates of DFV in Indigenous communities by providing culturally appropriate legal and human services, including legal assistance, casework, counselling and court support, as well as early intervention and prevention services. Under the IAS, the Australian Government committed $121.2 million to continue funding 14 Family Violence Prevention Legal Services across Australia until June 2020. No announcements have been made regarding funding for Family Violence Prevention Legal Services beyond this date, despite calls from the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum.
Another key legal services initiative under the National plan is the Family Advocacy and Support Services scheme, which began in 2016. This national scheme extends existing duty lawyer services in Family Courts to enable legal aid commissions to collaborate with specialist DFV services across state and federal court systems. Operating in 23 locations across Australia, the Family Advocacy and Support Services scheme is funded until 2022.
The Australian Government’s $100 million Women’s Safety Package to support work under the National plan began in 2015. The package included $15 million to help women at risk of DFV access legal assistance, establishing a three-year pilot program of 12 new specialist Domestic Violence Units (DVUs) in local courts and four new Health Justice Partnerships (HJPs).
Domestic violence units fill service gaps
DVUs provide intensive, coordinated, frontline legal and social work services which link women with financial counselling, tenancy assistance, trauma counselling, emergency accommodation, family law services and employment services. The Law and Justice Foundation’s recent evaluation suggests that the holistic approach taken by the Legal Aid NSW DVU enables it to fill important service gaps.
HJPs operate in hospital and health centre settings, offering a client-centred approach spanning health, justice and social services. Funding for DVUs and HJPs was extended to 2022 under the Government’s 2018 Women’s Economic Security Package, which aims to improve economic security for women, including economic recovery following DFV.
Other initiatives under the 2015 Women’s Safety Package include expanding support services including 1800RESPECT, Mensline and DV-Alert, which is a national training program to assist community frontline workers such as teachers, volunteers and medical practitioners to recognise and refer clients experiencing or at risk of DFV.
The NSW Government has introduced its Domestic and Family Violence Blueprint for Reform 2016–2021, which focuses on prevention, early intervention and victim support through the Safer Pathway initiative. NSW was the last state to join Our Watch a month ago. The other state and territory governments have their own plans and strategies to tackle DFV in line with the National plan.
National partnership agreement
In the justice sector, the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services 2015–2020 is consistent with both the national plan and the Women’s Safety Package. The national partnership agreement seeks to target legal assistance services to people facing disadvantage and identifies ‘people experiencing or at risk of DFV’ as a key priority group. It provides funding to state and territory governments to distribute to legal aid commissions and community legal centres so disadvantaged people can access legal assistance services. The national partnership agreement draws heavily on the LAW Survey and Reshaping legal assistance services: building on the evidence base: a discussion paper, both from the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW.
All these strategies, policies, partnerships and initiatives are part of an effort from people across the sector to create networks of joined-up services that offer the legal and human services women need when dealing with domestic and family violence.The evidence supports the effectiveness of this type of approach.
The Foundation’s research also reinforces the importance of accessible public legal assistance services for DFV remaining a government policy priority.
If you, or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au
Catherine Carpenter is communications manager for the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW