Fighting domestic abuse through legislative and judicial reform

Research to improve the legal system’s response to family violence has prompted a change in legislation across Australia

The need

Domestic Family Violence (DFV) remains a severely damaging and complex issue within Australian communities. DFV behaviour within an intimate or family relationship that is violent, coercive or controlling or fear-inducing, can affect anyone. However, this abuse disproportionately affects women.

Across a series of research projects, Professor Heather Douglas has built an understanding of how abuse survivors interact with the courts. These projects demonstrated legislative shortfalls that grouped acts of family violence as ‘assault’ crimes, which failed to consider the standalone intricacies of non-fatal strangulation.

Starting with the criminalisation of non-fatal strangulation in Queensland in 2016, this body of research helped create a sequencing of State and Territory reform that prompted all Australian jurisdictions to consider non-fatal strangulation a standalone offence.

Developing the solution

Melbourne Law School’s Professor Heather Douglas’ research has focussed on several areas of DFV to improve the legal system’s response to family violence, improve women’s safety and ensure accountability of abusive individuals and state institutions.

Starting with a 2015-2020 Future Fellowships research project Using law and ending domestic violence: Women's voices’, this work identified how groups of women with lived experience of DFV engaged with the law over time.

This project was the first Australian longitudinal study of its kind.

Such foundations led directly to the Discovery Project – The non-fatal strangulation offence as a response to domestic violence (2020023). This project reviewed the application of the new Queensland laws isolating strangulation as its own offence with an aim to recommend policy and legislative reforms to aid the education and legal outcomes of the new offence.

The outcome

Professor Douglas’ research was integral to the forming of subsequent Queensland legislation creating a separate non-fatal strangulation offence in 2016 – the first such offence in Australia.

Her Women’s Voices project, research that collated experiences of DFV victims within the legal system and former leader of the Queensland opposition, Deb Frecklington, directly referenced this research in a speech in Queensland parliament ahead of further amendments to legislation in 2020.

This research was also referenced within the Special Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence in Queensland, which presented its 2015 Not Now, Not Ever report to the Premier. The report recommended a separate strangulation offence to better deal with such examples of gendered violence.

In October 2023, the Victorian Government became the last Australian State or Territory to consider a standalone strangulation offence. As Professor Douglas discussed in a recent article in The Conversation, this new law will foster a more substantive system of referrals and court proceedings, as it has in other states.

Victoria’s reforms followed New South Wales changes to the criminal act in 2018, South Australia and Northern Territory in 2019, West Australia in 2020 and Tasmania in 2022.

Changes to criminal acts in subsequent States that followed the changes in Queensland were modelled on Queensland laws.

Her 2018 research ‘Legal systems abuse and coercive control’, consisting of interviews with women with lived experience of the legal system because of abuse, coined the term ‘legal-systems abuse’.

This term refers to the capacity of domestic abuse perpetrators to weaponise the law to extend abuse and identifies judiciary strategies of intervention to stop this form of abuse.

The Australian Government’s Department of Social Services 2023 national action plan – a Federal Government ambition to end violence against women and children within a generation – highlighted Professor Douglas’ understanding of legal-system abuse.

This research directly contributed to the development of the Bench Book - a centralised, national resource that offers guidance to magistrates, judges and other legal professionals on the sensitivities and complexities of DFV.

Alongside annual reviews, this Bench Book has garnered more than 40,000 visitors already in 2023. This body of research into the non-fatal strangulation offence as a response to DFV remains ongoing, as more complex understandings of violence emerge.

More information

First published on 8 November 2023.

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