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Victims advocate wants end to "culture of secrecy" around domestic violence

ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner John Hinchey​ has called for a national shift in the "culture of secrecy" around personal information on domestic violence victims and perpetrators.

Mr Hinchey said better ways of managing and sharing information in family violence cases needed to be at the core of a broader, whole-of-community response to the scourge of domestic abuse.

"Health, education, care and protective services, juvenile justice, adult corrective services, police, support services and the criminal justice system all have bits of information about families that, when we put it all together, says 'this family needs help'."

But common perceptions about privacy rights, laws and policy guidelines often prevented information about safety risks being pooled between services – a limitation he said at times had "deadly consequences".  

Mr Hinchey was speaking at the 2015 STOP Domestic Violence Conference in Canberra on Monday.

"We must change our culture of secrecy around information management," he said.


Mr Hinchey said navigating a complex array of privacy provisions and potential breaches meant there was "too much uncertainty" around what personal information workers could share and meant they were often penalised by the system.

"Information sharing about a perpetrator's criminal record, current charges and anecdotal history of violence, police call-outs, previous partners who have taken out protection orders, child protection services interventions, drug and alcohol abuse or their non-compliance with mental health community treatment orders are hedged with privacy provisions that work against managing their risk to others."  

He said the lack of balance between a perpetrator's right to privacy and the safety of others, in areas such as mental health or drug and alcohol abuse, presented a very real, continued risk to victims and potential victims of domestic violence. 

"The focus is on a generalised concept of community safety, rather than a direct consideration for the safety of those who have to live in relationship with those who abuse and control."

Mr Hinchey admitted he had "real concerns" about sharing victim information without their consent and said their personal circumstances should be discussed in multi-agency forums with their consent "wherever possible".

Any risk assessment tools and information sharing mechanisms needed to be expanded so they weren't limited to cases where police were involved, he said.

Many victims of domestic violence-related murders had little or no contact with police, the civil justice system or support services before their death and more needed to be done to help victims who didn't seek help. 

That could include women who had unhelpful past experiences with police or courts, were discouraged by family or friends, or who feared stigma and a lack of understanding in the community.

The ACT's domestic and family violence co-ordinator-general Vicki Parker last month acknowledged better information sharing would have a huge impact on the territory's response to domestic abuse, but any mechanism would need to balance privacy concerns. 

Anti-domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty also made a strong push for more information sharing between family violence agencies after the Victorian state coroner delivered his findings into her son Luke's murder.

Mr Hinchey reiterated that coroner's formal recommendations that all agencies linked to family violence should have clear rules, policies and staff training on how information should be shared lawfully. 

He said a national framework would take the pressure off support service employees to decide when they should or shouldn't share information and would benefit victims and perpetrators.

Nearly 300 people attended the first day of the domestic violence conference, which features presentations and information sessions on numerous domestic violence-related matters and runs until Wednesday. 

Monday's line-up included Australia's National Research Organisation for Women's Safety Limited (ANROWS) chief executive Heather Nancarrow and White Ribbon chief executive Libby Davies.