Remove the burden of family violence from the victims, to the courts

Family violence is core business in our courts and an ongoing drain on our economic and social well-being. altanaka/Shutterstock

Family violence has finally come to attention as a systemic wrong in need of a national plan. A federal Senate Inquiry is examining it in detail and Victoria has appointed a dedicated minister for its prevention and a Royal Commission. The Queensland Special Taskforce has just handed down its comprehensive report, and a family violence prevention advocate, the incredible Rosie Batty, has been named Australian of the Year.

My team at RMIT’s Centre for Innovative Justice released a report today that aims to broaden this conversation. Despite increased awareness, a significant gap exists in our collective response. Yes, we need to support those who are subjected to family violence – mostly women and children – and this must remain our priority. But we must also intervene at the source of the problem.

Until we adjust the lens and bring those who use violence and coercion more clearly into view, victims will remain at risk and the cycle of this violence will simply roll on. This may manifest in assaults against the same or subsequent partners, in the damaging effects we know are experienced by children, in the behaviour of adolescents, or in tragic and lethal escalation.

Either way, it will manifest as core business in our courts and as an ongoing drain on our economic and social well-being.

Despite our collective condemnation of perpetrators of family violence, they tend to slip under the radar and away from the scrutiny of a systemic response. Too often the detached operation of the conventional court processes serve to cement this – issuing an order or passing a sentence and sending a perpetrator away – rather than keeping him within reach of an effective intervention.

Adult family violence has a significant effect on subsequent generations. This includes an increasing number of adolescents who use violence against their own families, but who need a more sophisticated response than the one generally on offer.

Our report highlights the opportunity that contact between the justice system and a violent or coercive man represents. The justice system – from police, to courts and corrections – can connect perpetrators with treatment for alcohol abuse or mental health issues that might need to be addressed in order for them to address their violence. This includes crisis accommodation when they are removed from the home to stop them from slipping off the radar.

Given that family violence is a core business in our courts, contact with the justice system to be used as an opportunity to identify the use of family violence in other offenders and for them to be connected with relevant treatment before the cycle of family violence continues.

All jurisdictions should use the imprimatur of a court to greater effect. This means bringing perpetrators of family violence back before the same judge for ongoing monitoring and swift, certain sanctions, including “flash incarceration” if they do not comply with court orders.

The report calls for jurisdictions to support a dedicated “perpetrator interventions” conference to highlight best practice that governments can adopt right away.

It also calls for jurisdictions to develop strategies for early intervention in family violence to contribute to a comprehensive evidence base, as well as for all jurisdictions to support men’s behaviour change programs as a fully funded and properly developed sector.

The easy – and somewhat lazy – call for a tough, “law and order” approach is not the answer. While imprisonment is an important recourse for some of the most violent offenders, we cannot rely on this as the only option, particularly when custody tends to cement damaging attitudes and behaviour.

Instead we need to make a sustained economic commitment to interventions that will, ultimately, place less demand on the broader system overall. We know enough about the current costs of family violence to understand that we cannot simply continue down the same path and expect change.

We have to remove the burden from victims and place it squarely on the system. What’s more, we have to make perpetrators of family violence responsible for their own behaviour.

Anyone at risk of family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault can seek help 24 hours a day, seven days a week, either online or by calling 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). Information is also available in 28 languages other than English.

Read other articles in The Conversation’s ongoing domestic violence coverage.