domestic violence
(Image: Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema)

Just sit down and talk it out — that’s one of the Morrison government suggestions to victims of domestic violence do, in the presence of a couples counsellor with no training in family violence. It’s as nonsensical as it is backwards, and ignores the advice of literally hundreds of experts.

Despite pledging to “combat violence against women,” the Morrison government has pledged a measly $328 million toward a problem estimated to cost the Australian economy $21.7 billion a year. Intimate partner violence contributes to more death, disability and illness in women aged 15 to 44 than any other preventable risk factor in Australia, contributing to 8% of the disease burden. Among G20 nations, Australia ranks eighth for rates of domestic violence against women. The UN has said violence against women in Australia is “disturbingly common”, with one woman murdered by her partner every week on average. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, pregnant women and women with disabilities experience far higher rates of violence compared to other women. 

Despite these staggering statistics, Australia has a repeated tendency to ignore the advice of family violence experts, opting for outdated and unsupported methods which put the safety of children and survivors at risk.    

Experts are left on the sidelines

$10 million was set aside in the 12-year National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children to fund couples counselling for family violence victims and perpetrators as part of a “whole family” approach. Of the groups invited to participate, most are faith-based. There are no requirements that any counsellor have experience or training delivering specialist domestic violence services. Unsurprisingly, the move has been slammed by hundreds of doctors and specialists.

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One of the main problems, according to the director of Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service NSW Hayley Foster, is counselling puts power back in the hands of an abuser. 

“Many women feel pressured or coerced or intimidated into counselling. Survivors of domestic violence have told us either you can speak up because you’re being encouraged, and if you do you can be afraid that there’s going to be consequences, or you’re so scared you don’t say a thing at all. Power and abuse often escalate,” she says. 

Couples counselling also twists the narrative, creating an approach of shared responsibility.

“The reality for someone who will use abuse is that they’ll make that choice themselves. It doesn’t matter what the victim of abuse has done. It’s entirely the responsibility of the abuser,” Foster says. 

In the Family and Federal Circuit Court, where family law cases are held, it would make sense that judicial officers, experts and family reporters dealing with cases of domestic violence would have specialist training in the area. Again, there are no requirements.

As Federal Circuit Court Judge Matthew Myers noted, “those delivering ‘expert evidence’ in Australian Family and Federal Magistrates courts rarely have the training, knowledge and skills needed to do this type of work adequately”.

Misinformation across courts and in rulings

Along with a lack of expertise, misinformation is rife. According to a 2013 survey, 53% of Australians believe women in custody battles often invent or exaggerate claims of domestic violence to improve their case — but experts have found the actual figure for false reports is just 10%, with fathers just as likely to lie as mothers. 

This misbelief has had legal consequences — until recently, the Family Law Act had a “friendly parent” provision encouraging parents to let each other have a relationship with their child. Abuse allegations could be seen as malicious or vindictive. Not only this, but judges have a high degree of discretion when making rulings, Foster says. Outcomes can be vastly different in similar cases based on a judge’s preference and information from untrained “experts”.  

“The biggest concern is the culture, the manner in which a decision is made and lack of knowledge and expertise and information on the impact on women and children’s safety,” she says. 

The tangle of state and federal

There is a huge disjunct between state-based services, which include apprehended violence orders, civil protection and child protective services, and the federal courts. Police will present domestic violence evidence to a magistrate who then creates a contact order, usually allowing access to the children for both parents. 

“There is no risk assessment at that point. Magistrates are making decisions with very little information,” Foster says. The ALRC found “children are falling into harm because of gaps between the federal family court and state and territory courts, child protection services and police”. 

A seemingly simple solution, as suggested by the ALRC, would be to let states and territories rule in family law matters. The Attorney-General has announced plans to do the exact opposite, and merge the Federal Circuit and Family courts.

“[The merge] seems to be motivated by efficiency. Yes, we need more resources and need to reduce delays. But we want to see reform to prioritise safety and wellbeing of children and those impacted by violence,” Foster says.