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Justice system failing domestic violence victims: expert

Victims of domestic violence victims are being let down by a criminal justice system that fails to account for ongoing patterns of abuse and control, a leading expert says. 

Professor Patricia Easteal, of the University of Canberra, has called for the introduction of a new domestic violence offence to make "coercive control" a crime. 

Professor Easteal, a leading expert on women and the law and 2010 ACT Australian of the Year, says the justice system's focus on individual, one-off incidents of domestic violence does not match the reality of victims' lives. 

"There continues to be a mismatch between what victims experience as violence and what players in the criminal justice system tend to conceptualise as a criminal act," she said.

"The result of this 'mismatch' between the victims' reality of violence in the home and the view of the criminal justice system can be tragic."

More than two decades ago, Professor Easteal conducted research on intimate homicides across Australia. 


She found in almost all cases involving a man killing his partner, the homicide was the "last act in a lengthy history of battering". 

In more than half the cases, the woman had left the relationship. 

Professor Easteal says the same thing is still being observed today, and fears the justice system is not acting strongly enough to protect women before it's too late.

"Such tragedy seems to be almost an inevitable outcome of a persistent blindness by the police, courts (and community) to the seriousness of spousal violence," she said.

"Legislation to protect victims of family violence, some enacted over the past two decades, is of negligible value if arrests, prosecutions and convictions do not take place.

"Also of concern are the relatively lenient sentences given, which are of little deterrent value."

This year alone in Australia, two women have died every week at the hands of a partner or ex-partner. 

The ACT has seen three family violence-related deaths in three weeks; two involving a man allegedly killing a partner or ex-partner, and the other a man allegedly killing his mother's partner in Wanniassa. 

Professor Easteal last year published a book with Anna Carline called Shades of Grey, which calls for the introduction of a specific offence for family violence for "coercive control".

It is argued that such an offence is needed because the current criminal calendar is inadequate in capturing the harms inflicted in abusive relationships. 

The focus of a "coercive control" offence would be on patterns of behaviour, she said.

"Such an example can be seen in Tasmania, where it is an offence for a person to 'pursue a course of conduct that he or she knows, or ought to know is likely to have the effect of unreasonably controlling or intimidating or causing mental harm, apprehension or fear in, his or her spouse of partner'."

Recently re-elected NSW Premier Mike Baird last month committed to introducing a domestic violence disclosure register, a system which would allow people to check whether their partners were domestic violence offenders.

When asked whether it would follow suit, the ACT said it would monitor the efforts of other states and territories in tackling domestic violence.

Professor Easteal said such a system, piloted in Britain, had its problems. Disclosure rates in the pilot areas varied greatly, she said, possibly because of different interpretations of what constituted the "pressing need" required for information to be released.

She said many violent men were initially very loving, charming and non-abusive, meaning women wouldn't seek disclosure early on.

A disclosure system, Professor Easteal said, could lay responsibility for the problem at the feet of individuals, instead of governments, and take the focus off the failures of the system.