By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
Victims of domestic violence will soon be able to flee their homes faster and without penalty if they need to abandon a private or government tenancy, under new residential tenancy laws.
The changes are designed to offer victims better protection from abusive partners.
Currently, complainants on a fixed lease must provide 14 days’ notice to their landlord, with potential liabilities, in addition to a final AVO, which can take as long as a year to obtain.
And for people living in dangerous, potentially explosive situations, the chance to get out is often opportunistic and spur of the moment. The current laws don’t allow for such emergencies.
But the proposed new laws, which will be introduced in the first half of next year, will enable tenants to terminate their tenancy immediately by providing evidence of domestic violence through a provisional, interim or final AVO, or a court order.
The proposed changes would also ensure domestic violence victims aren’t penalised for property damage or rental debt caused by a violent partner.
Landlords would also be prohibited from listing victims on tenancy databases where a debt or property damage arose because of a violent partner.
Currently, many victims who flee risk debt and being blacklisted as a ‘bad tenant’, which only increases the problems they face finding a new home.
Those whose partners abandon them are often faced with heavy financial burdens too, and can find themselves ‘locked into’ tenancy agreements which enforce financial penalties if leases are broken early.
The new laws make allowances for people in violent relationships whose circumstances change quickly. The changes are designed to find an appropriate balance between keeping victims safe and supported, while still respecting the rights of landlords.
The reforms, which follow a review of the Residential Tenancies Act 2010, will also make changes to the list of reasonable excuses to change locks, to protect a tenant from domestic violence; and to remove, in cases of domestic violence, the automatic liability of a tenant for the damage caused by others who are on the premises.
The New South Wales Womens’ Legal Service (WLS), which has long championed change, has welcomed the reforms.
It says it sees many women who incur debt because they are listed as co-tenants with an abusive partner. They flee the home, thinking their partner will continue to honour the rental payments, but when he doesn’t, the rental debt follows the women, making it difficult for them to secure a new rental property.
The WLS says many women have been burdened by property damage – sometimes thousands of dollars worth, including holes in walls, smashed doors, broken windows, and busted locks caused by a violent partner.
When the damage exceeds the original bond amount, the tenants are forced to pay, or they are evicted, sometimes leaving them with nowhere else to go.
Domestic violence and homelessness
One of the most significant contributing factors to homelessness, not just here, but in so many other places around Australia, is domestic violence. And higher numbers of women than ever before are being exposed to the streets.
Research suggests that homelessness caused by domestic violence differs from other forms of because the availability of accommodation is often a critical factor in a woman’s decision on whether to leave, especially if they have children.
Statistics suggest that women are victims of domestic violence than men- with one in six women experiencing violence from a former or current partner, and more in indigenous communities. However, growing numbers of men are victims too.
Getting out of a violent relationship can be horrendously difficult for anyone.
Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, Pru Goward says that changes to the residential tenancy laws are designed to ensure that there is less red tape and the system is more streamlined and supportive for victims leaving abusive partners.
There are, however, concerns the new laws will be abused by some – who may falsely claim domestic violence in order to get out of their financial obligations, potentially devastating the falsely accused party who may find themselves unfairly facing an additional financial burden on top of an AVO application and assault charges.
However, those considering making a false claim for ulterior motives – such as to bolster family law proceedings or as retribution against a former partner – should be aware they could face prosecution through the criminal courts and hefty penalties.