Government must act to support family violence victims in Family Court proceedings
Posted October 19, 2015
CATHY McGOWAN (Indi) (12:51): I move:
That this House:
(1) notes that:
(a) inconsistencies exist between federal and state court procedures in relation to the direct cross examination of a victim by an accused person;
(b) specific state laws are in place to prevent an accused person from directly cross examining their victim in sexual offence cases and, in some states, family violence protection order cases—in such cases, an accused person must have legal representation to cross examine the victim;
(c) in family law cases nationally, there are no legislative protections to prevent an alleged perpetrator of violence who is unrepresented, from directly cross examining their victim; and
(d) intimate partner violence is the top risk factor for death, disability and illness in women aged 15 to 44—the added fear and trauma of cross examination by an alleged or known perpetrator of violence is a continuation of violence; and
(2) calls on the Government to amend family law legislation to ensure that in situations of family violence, an unrepresented litigant alleged or known to have perpetrated violence is unable to directly cross-examine the victim.
There are three issues I will speak about to day. The first is that victims of family violence, when giving evidence in the Family Court, must be protected from direct cross-examination by the alleged perpetrator. The second is the devastating impact on victims such cross-examination can have. Thirdly, I call on the Attorney-General to act swiftly in this matter and to amend the Family Law Act to protect these victims.
Many victims are living in fear in their own homes. Imagine a victim of such violence, having finally got out of such a situation and having got the children out as well, then being exposed to further violence from their abuser in the Family Court system. The approach is inconsistent between state and federal jurisdictions in this regard. For example, a victim may be protected from cross-examination in Victoria when applying for a protection order but not be protected in the federal Family Law courts in Victoria in relation to essentially the same issues. This is the situation that faced Eleanor, a woman who was put in the terrible situation of being directly cross-examined by her partner in court. She said:
I am someone who has had direct experience when escaping a perpetrator of violence, then having to deal with the complexity of the system in keeping my children and myself safe from my abuser … My perpetrator was a self-litigant and was allowed to directly cross-examine me in our family law hearing.
Eleanor, sadly, is not alone.
The Women's Legal Service Australia and many other support groups have long been advocating for vulnerable witness protection to be included in the Family Law Act. In June this year, the Women's Legal Service Victoria made a submission to the Royal Commission into Family Violence. It recommended the federal government amend the Family Law Act to include legislative protections for vulnerable witnesses from direct cross-examination by a perpetrator of family violence. The concerns from these advocacy groups have largely been dismissed due to a belief this anomaly affected only a small group of people.
The Women's Legal Service Australia commissioned a survey to catalogue the experience of women—survivors and victims of domestic violence—being personally cross-examined by their abusers in Family Court proceedings. The survey was distributed nationally through their networks and social media in September this year and has provided some valuable insights into the issue of personal cross-examination. As of today, they have received 270 responses. The survey remains open until 31 December and I encourage people to contact their state women's legal service if they would like to contribute.
I will quote from the draft survey report. Victims have been saying: 'It felt like he was given a stick to beat me while everybody watched'; 'I was absolutely paralysed, fearful with anger'; 'I could not talk at all'; 'overwhelmed by feelings of fear, stress and anxiety'; 'the whole process was incredibly disempowering and exhausting'; 'it destroyed me'; 'I was physically ill on the side of the road on the way to the court'. Here we have traumatised and broken victims of family violence being exposed to violence all over again. COAG has made domestic violence a national priority. Governments are acting. I commend the Prime Minister for his recent announcement of a $100 million package of measures to provide a safety net for women and children at high risk of experiencing domestic violence.
While the funding is welcome, there is a simple and powerful action the government can take now. The government can legislate to protect victims when giving evidence in the Family Court. When he made this announcement, the Prime Minister stated:
Women and children in Australia have the right to feel safe and live without fear of violence.
I agree. All victims have this right. Today I call on the government to move on this issue, to take immediate and urgent action to ensure that the Family Law Act includes specific protection for vulnerable witnesses, to stop direct cross-examination by a perpetrator or alleged perpetrator.
Finally, I would like to say thank you to Eleanor for her courage in sharing her story. And I take her call with pride to this House. Thank you.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mrs Jane Prentice, Member for Ryan): Thank you, Member for Indi. And I thank you for your proposal. Is there a seconder for the motion?