According to media reports, NSW Labor has promised to set up specialised domestic violence courts if the party is elected to power in the next state election.
With much recent publicity surrounding the rates of domestic violence in Australia, police and state governments are scrambling to find ways to respond and tackle the problem.
Specialised domestic violence courts are intended as a way to reduce the trauma that is often experienced by complainants and defendants in domestic violence cases when attending a regular court.
They can be set up so that complainants can give evidence remotely, and have extra safety measures in the courtroom.
The courts would also be presided over by magistrates with specialist training in domestic violence cases and issues.
How bad is the domestic violence problem in NSW?
It has been reported that in the last year, domestic violence in NSW has reached its highest ever levels.
The problem appears to be at it’s worst in rural and regional NSW, with rates of domestic violence reportedly 11 times higher there than in metropolitan areas like Sydney.
According to the latest figures released by the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) in June this year, domestic violence assaults have risen by 2.7% over the previous five years.
In contrast, general assaults have decreased by 5.3%.
Along with this, another report undertaken by BOCSAR last year revealed that only half of all domestic violence incidents that occur are even reported to police.
This is due to a number of reasons.
A lack of confidence in the system and preferring to avoid the trauma and distress of going through the police to report domestic violence were found to be among most common reasons for not reporting.
Would domestic violence courts be effective?
Under the current system, complainants who want to report domestic violence to the police, either by seeking an apprehended domestic violence order or to report an assault, need to go through the regular courts.
If police officers go to the scene of an assault or other disturbance and have reasonable grounds to believe that domestic violence is taking place, they can start proceedings on behalf of the alleged victim, even without their consent.
Unfortunately most general duties police officers and magistrates aren’t specifically trained to deal with the often-complex issues that surround domestic violence.
This can lead to victims mistakenly being accused of being the perpetrators, and can impact on victim safety and the likelihood of offender recidivism.
Parties are also often open to intimidation in court and may withdraw statements and request charges to be dropped out of fear, or a wish to avoid undergoing a traumatic process of testifying and confronting the abuser or false complainant.
There are a number of support services currently available to help those who have been victims of domestic violence as they go through the courts, but these are not always enough, particularly when it comes to victim safety.
The current system of penalising domestic violence offenders is also believed to be less effective than requiring them to undergo treatment programs to help them learn to change their behaviour.
The idea is that domestic violence courts would be a safer and more effective way for victims of domestic violence to seek protection.
Based on the effectiveness of drug courts, which are specialised courts set up to deal with drug offenders with a focus on seeking treatment and counselling rather than harsh penalties, it is believed that domestic violence courts could be an effective alternative to going through the mainstream court system.
How would they work?
Domestic violence courts would be set up so that complainants could testify remotely through CCTV and they would be closed to the general public.
There would also be separate waiting areas for complainants and alleged offenders so that both could feel safer and more comfortable, reducing the likelihood of intimidation.
Magistrates and court staff would be specifically trained in domestic violence and sexual assault issues so they could deal appropriately with the complicated nature of domestic violence and avoid common assumptions and misunderstandings.
What is currently being done to reduce domestic violence?
A number of NSW Police initiatives are in place to help reduce the rates of domestic violence, and protect complainants.
These include the use of trained domestic violence liaison officers located in police stations to assist victims who want to report domestic violence or apply for an AVO.
Many of the recent initiatives being brought out have been implemented as part of the current Liberal government’s Stop the Violence Action Plan, which was started in 2010.
Under this plan, the NSW Government has committed $50 million over five years towards initiatives aimed at reducing and preventing domestic violence.
A more recent initiative was rolled out earlier this year by NSW Minister for Women Pru Goward.
The It Stops Here initiative is being supported by $9.8 million in funding and is working on improving responses to incidents, as well as on violence prevention and changing offender behaviour and attitudes.
As well as setting up specialised domestic violence officers to deal with victims of domestic violence and provide support, the initiative is also working on setting up a centralised database of information which can be shared among police and welfare agencies so that complainants don’t have to go through the trauma of retelling their stories to multiple agencies to get help.
Coordination and referral points have been set up for domestic violence victims to act as a central place for them to receive support and services, with more to be set up over the next few years.
These centres are intended to take a victim-centred approach and improve access to services and coordination across multiple agencies.
As domestic violence is a complicated issue, it’s important that it is approached with understanding and specialist training.
Domestic violence and sexual assault courts have proven to be successful in other countries, and if implemented in NSW, could also prove to be an effective way to protect parties and help change attitudes and behaviour.