Written by Andrew Tiedt
January 5, 2015
Domestic violence is a problem that is not easy to solve.
Despite concerted efforts from police, the government, judges and magistrates to name just a few, the problem doesn’t appear to be getting better. Far too frequently, it ends in tragedy.
We are constantly greeted by shocking headlines in newspapers about cases where domestic violence results in serious injuries or even death. Even more shockingly, it is often claimed that better intervention by authorities may have saved the victim’s life.
That may be true. Police resources are stretched, and officers have to make decisions every day about which domestic violence cases are prioritised. It’s easy to criticise police after a domestic violence matter ends tragically, but no one takes note the thousands of cases where appropriate police responses prevent matters escalating further.
It is in this context that the NSW Labor Party has promised (http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/labor-promises-specialist-domestic-violence-courts-if-elected-20141011-114mpz.html), if elected, to create a specialist court for sexual assault and domestic violence cases. It is proposed to have 3 trial locations in Sydney, Wollongong and the Hunter.
On the face of it there is merit to the idea. It is true that dealing with domestic violence matters raises specific issues that are best addressed with someone who has experience in the area.
This has proved effective with the Children’s Court, where specialist procedures and policies as well as tailored sentencing options result in a process that far more effectively addresses the social issues that lead to juvenile offending.
However, there are significant problems with Labor’s idea. The Local Court already has well thought out and implemented policies and procedures to ensure domestic violence matters are dealt with promptly and efficiently, and to do everything possible to look after alleged victims.
Further, unless it is proposed to replicate every single Local Court with a “domestic violence court”, such a proposal risks pulling these matters away from local courts that have a connection to the community and dumping them in a large court conglomerate. That has the potential to increase the discomfort victims feel, not to mention additional travel requirements.
Finally, whilst special procedures and processes are appropriate, it is unclear why it is that magistrates and judges require specialist training to conduct domestic violence or sexual assault cases.
The prevalence of those two issues in our criminal justice system means that the judiciary is extremely well versed in the issues. When a person is being prosecuted, the courts are required to apply the same standards of proof as they would for any other criminal matter. Judges and magistrates are very good at what they do and it is wrong to suggest that the they need some sort of specialist training to do it in domestic violence or sexual assault matters.
Whether the other political parties get on board with the idea of these new courts remains to be seen. What is clear is that the most urgent need in regard to fighting domestic violence is funding. Funding for police to attend incidents promptly, for support workers to assist victims, and for courts to resolve matters efficiently. Until more money is available, no real progress is likely to be made.