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Explainer: Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence

Victoria’s new Labor government has set up an Australian-first royal commission into family violence. AAP/Julian Smith

The Royal Commission into Family Violence began in its work Victoria this week.

The royal commission was established following several high-profile family violence incidents. This included the murder of 11-year-old Luke Batty by his father in February 2014. The Batty case encouraged a long-overdue statewide conversation about the extent of family violence in our community.

Like so many cases before it, Luke’s death highlighted significant inefficiencies in police responses to family violence and in the child protection system. It also reinforced long-held concerns about the ineffectiveness of intervention orders in preventing violence.

Establishing a royal commission into family violence was a key promise of the then-Labor opposition’s election campaign. After winning government, Premier Daniel Andrews introduced the first Victorian minister for the prevention of family violence, Fiona Richardson. In December 2014, Andrews announced the establishment of the royal commission.

The royal commission is undoubtedly in safe hands with Justice Marcia Neave at its helm. Neave is a former justice of the Victorian Supreme Court (Court of Appeals division) and was previously the foundation chair of the Victorian Law Reform Commission. In her role at the commission, Neave undertook inquiries into Victorian homicide law and sexual offences. These inquiries were largely guided by a common goal of making the law more accessible and just for female victims of violence.

Working with Neave are deputy commissioners Patricia Faulkner and Tony Nicholson.

The royal commission’s scope

The terms of reference are all-encompassing. These direct the royal commission to:

  • Examine and evaluate strategies, frameworks, policies, programs and services across government and local government, media, business and community organisations;

  • Investigate the means of having systematic responses to family violence, particularly in the legal system and by police, corrections, child protection, legal and family violence support services, including reducing re-offending and changing violence and controlling behaviours;

  • Investigate how government agencies and community organisations can better integrate and co-ordinate their efforts; and

  • Provide recommendations on how best to evaluate and measure the success of strategies, frameworks, policies, programs and services put in place to stop family violence.

Within these broad terms of reference, Neave has said the commission’s primary focus is to improve the system. Within this, addressing how the system can best cope with “the sheer volume of people” affected by family violence will be central.

In this respect, this royal commission differs from the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse. That inquiry is largely focused on victims and providing a forum for victims to present their experiences.

Why Victoria needs a royal commission

It is difficult to capture just how important a royal commission with this focus is. For too long, family violence has taken, threatened and pervaded the lives of so many in the Victorian community. At the royal commission’s launch, Governor Alex Chernov cited the terrifying extent of family violence in Victoria:

  • In 2013 there were 44 family violence-related deaths in Victoria;

  • In 2013-14 more than 65,000 family violence incidents were reported to Victoria Police; and

  • The estimated cost of family violence to the Victorian economy in 2009 was A$3.4 billion.

According to VicHealth, violence against women remains the biggest contributor to ill-health and premature death in women aged 15 and 44.

Importantly, family violence is not unique to Victoria. In this respect, it is hoped that a royal commission of this scope in one state will promote much-needed policy, be system-focused and support service examinations in other Australian jurisdictions.

Given the hesitance to implement a national inquiry into family violence, state-based interventions will be important in leading the way and promoting an evidence-based discussion of best-practice approaches to prevention, intervention and legal responses.

The importance of funding

As a starting point, the Victorian government has committed $36 million to the work of the royal commission. It is providing another $4 million in funding to services that are likely to experience increased demand during the royal commission.

This initial financial commitment is commendable. However, it must be viewed in light of recent federal funding cuts to a range of support services, community legal services, housing services and agencies that assist in the prevention of, and response to, family violence.

These funding cuts have led to reductions in staff, closing of shelters and cutting of programs with the mandate of responding to and preventing violence in our community.

For this reason, the Victorian government must appreciate that funding a commission in itself will not be enough to effect real change. Significant funding commitments will be needed to ensure that the commission’s recommendations are achievable and that the services, agencies and responses proposed are not starved of the resources that preventing violence against women, children and men have long required.

Where to from here?

While we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of attention being paid to this issue, it will be essential that the royal commission results in meaningful change to a system that has long failed to respond adequately to and prevent the scourge of family violence.

This is an opportunity for Victoria to be a national leader by better protecting the lives of so many victims of family violence who often exist in silence. The commission must find a way to give voice to their experiences, to ensure that the system responds more effectively and efficiently from this point forward. Too many lives depend on it.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

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