The Australian 24/04/2021
NICOLA BERKOVIC MACKENZIE SCOTT
The extent of domestic violence order breaches across Australia has been revealed in previously unseen figures that show the majority of those convicted are let off with fines and community orders, prompting calls for urgent action after two horrific alleged murders in separate states.
More than 35,000 defendants faced court last year charged with breaching domestic violence orders, one of the key mechanisms for protecting victims of abuse. And while 87 per cent were convicted, most received a noncustodial sentence.
Advocates called for a tougher response as it emerged Queensland mother-of-three Kelly Wilkinson, allegedly burnt alive by her estranged husband in her backyard, and nine-month-old Kobi Shepherdson, taken by her father over a dam wall in South Australia, were both the subject of court orders.
About 68 per cent of defendants convicted of breaching family and domestic violence orders received a non-custodial sentence in 2019-20, according to experimental family and domestic violence data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics last month but previously unreported.
Of those, about 40 per cent received a fine — which advocates said was inappropriate because it suggested men could “pay” to hit women — and 29 per cent received a community supervision or work order. Other non-custodial sentences include good behaviour bonds.
About a quarter received a custodial sentence in a prison or correctional institution.
In Queensland, the number of DVO breaches reported to police rose 19.7 per cent over the past financial year. The crime statistics, released by the state government on Friday, showed there had been a staggering 187.8 per cent rise over the past decade.
Queensland Deputy Police Commissioner Steve Gollschewski said only one in six perpetrators breached protective orders, with the year-on-year rise attributed in part to repeat offences.
“The breadth of DV for our community is truly appalling,” Mr Gollschewski said.
“I think DVOs work very well in a vast majority of cases. There are clearly some times where they haven’t been effective and … investigations by coroners … need to look at that as to whether the system needs to be improved.
“But the number where it has gone horrendously wrong and tragically wrong recently … is a small amount. That doesn’t excuse that in any way but we need to put this in context.”
Across Australia, local courts are being swamped with domestic violence cases. About 66,500 alleged family and domestic violence defendants were dealt with by courts last year — 93 per cent of those at the magistrates level, the ABS data shows.
The majority of defendants were male (83 per cent).
Applications for domestic violence orders accounted for a third of all civil cases finalised in magistrates courts in 2019-20, according to the Productivity Commission’s report on government services.
Across all domestic violence offence categories, the ABS data showed defendants had a guilty outcome in 79 per cent of cases, while 13 per cent had their charges withdrawn and 5 per cent were acquitted.
The highest conviction rates were in the Northern Territory (85 per cent), Western Australia (84 per cent), Victoria (83 per cent) and Queensland (82 per cent). NSW, the ACT and Tasmania had conviction rates above 70 per cent.
But in South Australia — where baby Kobi’s father had charges dropped last year after he threatened to kill her — more than half of defendants who made it to court (54 per cent) had their charges withdrawn. Just 43 per cent were found guilty of an offence.
Women’s Legal Service South Australia chief executive Zita Ngor said victims were often coerced into dropping charges so SA police could negotiate an intervention order.
“This means there is less work for police … but unfortunately victims often are not given independent information and advice about their options,” she said “The charges that are often dropped can be quite serious and a defendant can be on multiple charges.”
Ms Ngor said mandatory family violence training was needed for magistrates, police, lawyers and others working in the system so they understood the pattern of abusive behaviour, which was not confined to specific incidents.
Women’s Legal Service Queensland chief executive Angela Lynch said the most dangerous perpetrators were “intimate-partner terrorists” and should be dealt with as such.
“When Home Affairs and the Australian Federal Police identify a terrorist, we act pre-emptively, we assess risk and the system moves in around them to ensure that the public is safe,” she said. “We have to be much better at ensuring that women and children are safe (when they) are in the line of sight of these highly dangerous perpetrators.”
Women’s Safety NSW chief executive Hayley Foster said a tougher and more consistent response to DVO breaches was needed.
“It’s not uncommon for us to hear from women that their complaints about breaches to police get dismissed or not prosecuted and for … an offender to breach an ADVO five, 10, 15 times, and be let off with a slap of the wrist,” she said.
Ms Foster said ankle bracelets had been assessed as having a positive impact, but cost was a key reason they were not used more widely and the government needed “to dig down deep”.
University of Melbourne professor of law Heather Douglas said fines were inappropriate.
“On one level, they suggest he just has to pay to hit her and on another level there’s a real risk the fine is coming from the household income and the impact is going to be on the kids and the mother,” she said.
More sentencing options were needed, including sending perpetrators to behaviour-change, addiction or mental health services, but not enough services were available, she said.