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Concerns as coercive control bill passes NSW Lower House

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Domestic violence (DV) is complex and can involve more than just the perpetrator and victim; it involves children, families and communities as well. Each week a woman dies in Australia as a result of domestic violence perpetrated by her current or former partner. The NSW Lower House passed the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Coercive Control) Bill 2022 on Wednesday 20 October; yet many who work in the field of DV are calling for greater consultation and financial investment before it is brought into law.

‘Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse that involves patterns of behaviour that have the cumulative effect of denying victim-survivors their autonomy and independence,’ NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said when he spoke about the Coercive Control Bill 2022 passing through the Lower House.

‘It is a proven precursor to DV deaths. Our community has grieved with the families of too many domestic-violence homicide victims.’

Funding and consultation essential

Coercive control laws have been passed in a number of countries with the ‘gold standard’ being the laws in Scotland that were supported with significant consultation, funding, and training of the police force when they were introduced. There are concerns from some sectors that the NSW bill has been rushed and does not adequately address issues raised by stakeholders and may lead to negative outcomes.

‘This is a very important area of law reform but it has been rushed through and the many concerns raised by key stakeholders, including Domestic Violence NSW (DVNSW), are not being listened to,’ said Ballina MP Tamara Smith (Greens).

‘If the law does not support victims in the way advocates hope, we could well see worse outcomes.’

Renata Field, CEO of DVNSW is calling for a review of the legislation.

‘Children must be recognised as victims in their own right, and DVNSW are concerned the current NSW domestic violence legislation doesn’t acknowledge this clearly enough, either on paper or in practice,’ said Ms Field.

‘We applaud the way that the Scottish coercive-control legislation includes and acknowledges children, recognising the harm this form of violence causes against children and young people present. However, broadening the scope of the NSW coercive-control legislation is not the answer right now, and diversion is a better option for young offenders than criminalisation.

‘The consultation process has not taken on board the concerns of specialists in this area or consulted widely with youth and children’s representatives. As such, DVNSW is advocating for watertight oversight and review of the legislation rather than expansion at this stage.

Local domestic violence advocate Michelle Lyons, who works with victims and perpertrators of DV on the north coast, said there are serious issues around the risks of misidentification of who the perpetrator is and lack of funding for training and services.

‘I don’t believe this will address it. Further legislation won’t fix the problem,’ she told The Echo.

‘The things that will fix it will be effective without the criminal justice system. They include housing, financial support, emergency accommodation, counselling, primary prevention, police training, and community education activities.

‘Domestic violence is estimated at 60 per cent or more of general duties of police yet they get no ongoing training for DV after leaving the academy. The only ongoing training is for DV units. There are positions for domestic violence liaison officers but it is common they aren’t filled as DV is often seen as “not proper police work”.,’ she said.

‘Misidentifying the perpetrator is already an issue. Specifically, First Nations people, because of their history with the criminal justice system and the police,are at greater risk of misidentification.’

This was highlighted by Bundjalung woman Christine Robinson, who leads the Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women’s Legal Centre, in The Guardian who said that ‘the decision to report abuse to police comes with many barriers and fears for Aboriginal women. These include being dismissed by police, having their children taken, being misidentified as the abuser instead of the victim, and their ex-partner being killed in custody.

‘Many have raised concerns about misidentification of the predominant aggressor, and we share these concerns,’ said Ms Fields.

‘The Bill proposes to address this by starting with a narrow application of the offence, for example, by requiring an intention over the course of conduct of abusive behaviour to coerce or control (and removing recklessness as an alternative) and by limiting to intimate-partner violence and reviewing the impacts on First Nations people through the statutory review mechanism.

‘However, this does not address the underlying root causes of misidentification. If the root causes of misidentification are not addressed through cultural and systems reform, the issue of misidentification, particularly in relation to apprehended domestic violence orders, will remain.’

$5.6m not enough

Time and money for training police and providing wrap-around supports are essential for making complex coercive-control laws effective and NSW has not provided enough of either.

‘NSW’s initial commitment of $5.6 million to police and community education is an important first step; however, DVNSW are concerned that there is not enough time or money to train 18,000 police officers about the new coercive control legislation before it comes into effect,’ says Ms Field.

‘Thorough training is integral, as it is not only a new offence but a new way of investigating and charging offences.

‘This contrasts with Queensland’s commitment of $363 million over five years for a package of reforms in response to the Queensland Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce. In Victoria, we have seen a whole-of-system reform based on the findings from a Royal Commission in 2016, which led to more funding for DFV responses than all the other states and territories combined.

‘There is also a requirement to boost funding to domestic and family violence services, including women’s health centres, case-management services, and community legal centres, to cope with the increase in client demand.’

Ms Field said that DVNSW are calling for the immediate establishment of an independent taskforce and highlighted the need for regular and ongoing reviews with comprehensive review provisions.

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