Family violence is, sad to say, our bread and butter. We deal with more family violence matters than any other legal problem. Since 2005 we’ve advised thousands of people, mostly women, seeking legal protection from violence. Not only have we developed considerable professional expertise in this jurisdiction (especially in a rural context), but we have extensively canvassed women and asked them to tell us if the family violence legal system made them and their children safer. So we welcomed the recent opportunity to elaborate on our submission to Victoria’s Family Violence Royal Commission when it held public hearings in July and August.
On the 4th of August, one of our most experienced lawyers in this jurisdiction, Chris Casey, appeared before the Commission as an expert witness. Chris appeared alongside Leanne Sinclair, Family Violence Program Manager at Victoria Legal Aid.
Chris spoke about both his personal experience and the observations of women who contributed to our report Will somebody listen to me?
While Chris noted that court registrars are often at pains to maximise women’s safety with limited resources “It’s not unusual to feel eyes burning into the back of your head and look up and then on the next level is a respondent staring at you and the victim.”
Chris also noted that sometimes the physical limitations of the court buildings in rural areas conspired against our clients’ sense of safety. Applicants can find themselves waiting in line at the registry desk with respondents breathing down their neck: “You can only imagine the impact that has on the victim in terms of their sense of safety and their willingness to proceed.” Several local courts came in for special mention as being manifestly unsafe: Kyneton, Echuca and Cobram.
Counsel assisting the Royal Commission was keen to explore the potential for teleconferencing and remote witness facilities to improve women’s safety. Chris acknowledged their potential but suggested that teleconferencing not be restricted to court-to-court transmissions. Instead, properly resourced local community organisations could also be used as tele-conference venues. For example an Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention Legal Service would be a more supportive environment than a court for many Indigenous people. By locating one end of the hearing at such a venue, the relevant service could provide culturally appropriate and specialist support in relation to not only the intervention order process, but associated issues.
Chris also expressed a strong preference for the need to provide clients with consistent representation from directions through to contested hearings: a key recommendation from many of the women who contributed to Will somebody listen to me?. Many women wished that they had “the same lawyer throughout the legal process or that the lawyer that is assisting is made aware of the previous history of the matter.”
Counsel assisting and the Commissioners wanted witnesses to paint a picture of their ideal family violence system. For Chris, in an ideal world Magistrates would have the time to properly read the application, to properly explore all the issues, to assess whether a consent order actually promotes safety, and to seek from the respondent acknowledgement that they fully understand the terms of the orders and the consequences for them if they breach the orders. As it now stands, the demand on Magistrates precludes their ability to pay these matters the attention they deserve.
Chris and Leanne were invited to comment on the Victoria Police proposal that police have expanded powers, including the power to issue intervention orders in the field for a period of time, after which the parties would only return to court if they wished to vary those orders. While Chris did not discount the potential benefits of this approach, he cautioned that “the [current] family violence intervention order process creates opportunities for genuine rehabilitation, to promote accountability and also to link the victims of family violence into essential locally based services. You may not actually get that if you just had a police response as the only response.”
Commissioner Marcia Neave wanted to know if the duty lawyer process is simply propping up a court process, which is burdened to bursting point, so that people don’t receive appropriate legal representation.
In Leanne Sinclair’s view the duty lawyer system is “… not broken, it just needs an investment of resources so that we are able to… spend more time with clients… to ensure that we are providing advice, referrals, assistance, looking at other co-related matters… In an ideal world, if we were properly resourced, we would be able to see more clients who might benefit from a legal service, but also be able to address more of the specific issues, legal and other, that are experienced by that client at that opportunity at court.”
Chris, whose comments were picked up by a number of media outlets, was less sanguine. He compared the legislation underpinning the legal response to family violence to a late model car; it is a “2008 model vehicle that’s actually suitable for purpose, but it’s not being resourced, it hasn’t got fuel in it, it has bald tyres, it’s crashing and burning, so it’s unsafe.”