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Tougher responses needed for DV offenders

Domestic violence is a scourge in the community and our lawmakers must impose tougher penalties for offenders, writes Cassandra Pullos.

user iconCassandra Pullos 16 November 2016 SME Law
Cassandra Pullos
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A radical solution is needed because, despite all the talk and good intentions, the incidence of domestic violence continues to rise.

Statistics tell us that last year 80 women were killed by their partners. So far this year the total is 66 homicides. Of female homicide victims nationally, 23 per cent die as a result of domestic violence. In Queensland it’s worse, at 44 per cent. Between 2002 and 2012 there were 654 women victims of intimate partner homicide in Australia. The number of homicide victims is higher when children, men and extended family victims are included.

The figures are horrifying. If these statistics related to street violence, the community and government response would be immediate and dramatic.


Following the recent Council of Australian Governments Family Violence Summit in Brisbane, talk of roundtable discussions on domestic violence is a start in developing a consistent approach across different community and legislative responses.

I believe domestic violence is so widespread and ingrained, it needs a holistic government and community approach to eradicate it. Up until now, various groups and agencies were working almost independently and in isolation on DV solutions.

The current splintered approach needs to refocus around a robust policy to deter and appropriately punish domestic violence offenders, as well as protect victims and the community.

The current move to roundtable discussions is a great initiative that should bring some longer-term outcomes, but it isn’t enough in the immediate term. Our community and our families need and deserve an immediate response.

Legislators should bring in a stronger, better-coordinated raft of sentences for domestic violence and sexual assaults of children as a clear statement of the community’s stance against DV.

Tougher penalties should apply to domestic violence offences that would qualify as criminal charges. They would cover assault, murder, and sexual abuse, including rape of a partner.

The issue has become so extreme that it has prompted discussion by some political parties of dismantling the entire family court system.

Domestic violence is not a new issue in Australia. Worryingly, even alarming statistics don’t capture the extent of physical abuse, let alone the often equally damaging psychological aspects of DV. Unfortunately, the separation of the personal and public spheres has kept violence a secret within homes for far too long.

I believe a large percentage of homeless women are in this state because of domestic violence.

The full impact of DV is insidious and goes far beyond mere physical attacks. It is a hidden cancer spreading within the community.

Magistrate Colin Strofield, the first judge appointed to the Gold Coast specialist domestic violence court trial, which began in 2015, has publicly endorsed the effect of the court, which is being trialled ahead of a possible wider roll-out.

The court only deals with domestic violence and related criminal matters, and its workload has exceeded all expectations.

I feel a key to successfully, sustainably and holistically addressing Australia’s staggering domestic violence rates is changing the stigma and mindsets that facilitate the widespread abuse.

Simply put, we need to harness the community through a strong public stance and the resetting of moral and community norms. The approach now being taken to the 'coward punch' offences is an example of such a response.

The power of public opinion, coupled with legislative responses, has transformed what was previously tolerated and almost excused as 'street brawling' into the concept of a cowardly attack.

Where before the perpetrators of this violent assault were charged under an array of laws unspecific to their particular action, they now face a specific sentencing range if found to have deliberately struck another individual with any part of their body or object they may be holding.

The result is that whether or not you intend to kill or severely injure someone, if you attack them within the context of a coward punch you will face a specific sentencing range for your crime. So, what parallels can be drawn with domestic violence?

The community would likely be divided on introducing mandatory sentencing for domestic violence, and there are studies that have concluded it does not work as a deterrent.

An alternative might be the creation of a specific offence related to, for example, an assault committed against a family member, much like an assault against a police officer is a separate and different charge carrying different consequences to a charge of what is sometimes referred to as 'common assault'. The coward punch now also falls within that separate and specific category.

If we as a community, reflected by our criminal code, recognise assaults on police officers or assaults committed in the context of the coward punch as deserving of separation and special treatment at law, why wouldn’t we recognise assaults, and other acts of domestic violence that also amount to criminal acts, committed against family members to be a separate and specific category of criminal charge – with a higher sentencing range attached to it?

That approach may, for example, avoid the argument in cases like the Baden-Clay tragedy. Is a distinction between manslaughter and murder appropriate in the case of killings committed within families? Should there be a separate charge of, for example, 'homicide of a spouse' that carries penalties analogous to those for murder?

Mr Strofield speaks of the domestic violence court holding people accountable for their behaviour and how perpetrators have seen the error of their ways.

We need to build on that. Over the decades community attitudes have redefined how we regard drink- driving and smoking. Now the community is uniting in its disgust over coward punches. We need to apply that same mindset toward domestic violence.

A change in legislation would legitimise the growing number of voices that condemn this violence, while also sending a strong message to the rest of Australia that such action is shameful and completely unacceptable.

Public condemnation of domestic violence could be a powerful weapon in defeating this scourge. The fact that this method was successfully and swiftly implemented to deal with the coward punch issue bodes well for similar effectiveness for domestic violence. So why hasn’t it been suggested?

The domestic violence court trial on the Gold Coast will be analysed in a report due to be handed to the state government before Christmas. The trial is scheduled to run until mid-2017.

Sadly, domestic violence in all its forms is an Australia-wide epidemic and needs a national response. I believe the same hard-line stance against DV must be employed against those who sexually assault children. These are behaviours society must comprehensively reject.

Cassandra Pullos is an accredited family law specialist with Gold Coast firm Pullos Lawyers.

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