Police Lack Consistency When it Comes to Prosecuting for Domestic Violence

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Police Lack Consistency When it Comes to Prosecuting for Domestic Violence

Earlier this week at a memorial for Hannah Clarke – the woman who died from horrific burns only hours after her husband set fire to her car with their children inside – Commissioner Carroll praised the deceased woman’s bravery and courage.

Lying in intensive care, Hannah’s last living moments were largely consumed with providing evidence to police so they might be able to prosecute her husband.

Police have confirmed that domestic violence orders had been made against her killer, Rowan Baxter, and there had been “a number of engagements of police” between the couple, but not much more is known about the couple’s interactions with police prior to the horrific incident.

While kind words from the Commissioner may have provided some comfort to Hannah’s family, Commissioner Carrol has shown a glaring lack of consistency on the issue of domestic violence.

Lack of consistency

The Commissioner was front and centre in this incident, but has distanced herself from the high profile case of Julie*, a domestic violence victim who had her privacy breached when a Queensland Police Officer unlawfully accessed the police database and gave her private address to her former abusive partner.

The case has been a long-running battle for Julie* who has represented herself against the State in her bid for compensation, which the Queensland Civil And Administrative tribunal recently ordered the police force to pay, refusing the organisation’s leave for appeal not to do so in a decision late last year.

And in another recent case, Police told 31-year old Dani* (not her real name) that there was a prima facie case against her former partner for threatening violence, which means there was enough evidence for a magistrate to convict him, but decided not to prosecute the man because there was a “a low level of public interest” to do so.

In Dani’s case, police conducted a factual review of the alleged offence, but recommended that no charges be laid against the alleged perpetrator.

Instead, they turned the tables on Dani, warning that she could be charged with assault for hitting the man, which she had done before running to safety.

Determined to bring her partner to account, Dani* instructed her lawyers to commence a private criminal prosecution against her former partner and, earlier this year, the man pleaded guilty to threatening violence. He was sentenced to 130 hours of community service.

During the sentencing hearing, the court heard that police refused to assist Dani* with her case – declining initially to provide police statements of the alleged events.

It was only after Dani’s* lawyers complained directly to Queensland Police Commissioner, Katarina Carroll, that the statements were provided.

So with courage and perseverance, Dani was able to achieve a positive result for herself by “going it alone”.

Taking care of complainants

Police are often the first point of call for victims and there have long been calls for them to be better trained at seeing the warning signs of domestic violence which tends to escalate over time, as well as better able to steer victims to immediate and emergency assistance.

They also need to have the time and resources to help victims to document their stories, rather than to simply dismiss claims because there may not be enough evidence in a particular circumstance to lay charges. This is not just about assisting those victims who may end up in court, but also about building a body of research too, with the aim of better understanding patterns of behaviour and what circumstances trigger episodes of domestic violence.

Under-funded and under-resourced

Police response however, is not the only problem. Crisis shelters are in short supply. Mostly they are also under-funded and under-resourced, as are child protection agencies legal aid organisations.

Across the entire system there is a lack of cohesiveness, which simply results in a fragmented system that fails that many women and children attempting to get away from domestic violence. Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness amongst women and children in particular. Many end up living in their cars, or shuffling between relatives and friends and cheap accommodation options.

This leaves them vulnerable and traumatised, unable to safely rebuild their lives.

We’ve seen too often the social narrative too, that blames the victims for staying in abusive relationships and all too often paints a picture of a ‘stressed’ perpetrator who was pushed to breaking point.

Despite the millions of dollars poured into stopping domestic violence through both federal and state initiatives, women are still dying in alarming numbers across the country. Nine Australian women have already been killed so far this year.

While the prime minister and the opposition leader both came out with statements in response to the Baxter family deaths, the behaviour of politicians seems to have a pattern too – one that tends to push the issue of domestic violence into the background until a horrific act of violence makes headlines.

Isn’t it time that we began to see more from our leaders than just belated sympathy?

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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