The death of 11-year-old Victorian boy Luke Batty at the hands of his father in February 2014 highlighted for many the seriousness and the cost of domestic violence, and sparked a national campaign to protect women and children.
More than a year later, and with 34 women already dead as a result of domestic violence so far in 2015, a new national Domestic Violence Order (DVO) scheme has been announced by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).
Although it is clear that domestic violence is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, there are questions over how effective the scheme will be, and whether resources are being directed in ways that will actually better protect women from the risk of such violence.
What is the scheme?
As it currently stands, domestic violence orders only apply in the state they are granted in. This means that if the person who takes out an order moves interstate, they have to apply to the court in the new state to have the orders transferred. It also means that even holidaying in another state can leave them vulnerable.
Under the proposed scheme, a system to share information on domestic violence orders between all states in Australia and recognise the orders across state lines will be set up, in order to give those who take out orders greater protection.
The scheme, proposed at the COAG meeting in April, was due to be implemented by the end of 2015. But while the legislative framework will be in place by the end of the year, the system to share information will take longer to implement, and will depend on the outcome of a pilot program being rolled out in NSW, Queensland and Tasmania.
The $3.3 million program is due to report back to the federal government in 2016.
Apprehended Violence Orders – do they protect anyway?
But while the scheme is a step in the right direction, the jury is still out on how much help it will actually be, especially given that domestic violence orders themselves are not always effective.
The orders are often the first line of defence in cases of domestic violence. However, they are often violated, leaving those who have taken out the orders vulnerable to further violence and also facing having to attend another court case if breaches are prosecuted.
The orders are also open to misuse – frequently being taken out without sufficient grounds, out of malice or for ulterior motives. A number of groups including judges of the Family Court have criticised the improper use of AVOs to bolster claims for parenting and even financial claims.
According to a report by the ABC, there were more than 26,000 orders granted in NSW in 2014, with nearly half of those ending in prosecutions over breaches. In Victoria, there were more than 46,000 orders finalised, with around 20% of them being prosecuted for breaches.
Domestic violence workers state that many victims do not report breaches due to fear, or the feeling that they will not be believed or because they don’t want to go through further court proceedings.
They assert that breaches of AVOs do not incur serious penalties unless there are multiple breaches brought before the court, or where there is the commission of actual violence.
Are there other protections?
A device known as the SafeTCard which is designed to detect repeated breaches was recently trialled. The card has a button which can be pushed to activate an alarm at a central control room, and has a microphone which records evidence which may be later used in court.
The trial comprised a total of 21 women and was hailed a success because there were no face-to-face breaches. But of the 110, 000 domestic violence orders in Australia, the trial of 21 seems too small to reach any reliable conclusions regarding effectiveness.
The US and UK have also trialled a system known as flash incarceration. This is where the courts have been empowered to impose almost immediate short prison sentences for perpetrators who have breached their intervention orders. The idea might sound good, but in reality, how would overcrowded prisons cope? And what about in cases where the orders have been misused?
Domestic violence is a matter for the whole community. It costs the taxpayer financially in medical and social services, and perhaps more importantly damages the current and next generation, who might continue the cycle or suffer the rest of their lives being unable to function as positive contributors to society.
The government is also spending $30 million on a national awareness campaign, money which some say might be better used for more women’s shelters and other support services.
Whether the new scheme will work remains to be seen.