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Saturday, June 19, 2021

Legislative reform necessary for domestic violence

Warning: This article contains information that some readers might find confronting and disturbing.

ACT laws must be changed to ensure tougher sentences for people convicted of domestic or family violence, both the government and opposition believe. Both Labor and the Liberals have drafted legislation following the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions’ statement last year that sentences for serious family and domestic violence offences were too lenient.

“Most offenders who commit serious family violence offences – even repeat offenders – are either not sentenced to a term of imprisonment, or are sentenced to a community-based sentence of imprisonment,” Anthony Williamson, ACT Deputy DPP, wrote in a letter to the Victims Advisory Board in November.

Mr Williamson argued that legislative reform was necessary to ensure that sentences properly and adequately recognised the evil of family violence, and that sentences accorded with community expectations.

Moreover, clients or people who had been subjected to violence saw the ACT’s current lenient sentencing as a barrier to coming forward, said Glenda Stevens, interim general manager at the Domestic Violence Crisis Service (DVCS) in Canberra. It also created a lot of frustration and additional trauma to people who had been subjected to violence.

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said that the Justice and Community Safety Directorate had drafted legislation that went to the ACT Cabinet yesterday afternoon, 10 May.

Similarly, Elizabeth Lee, Shadow Attorney-General and Opposition leader, yesterday released a draft bill for public consultation, which she will present to the Legislative Assembly after feedback from stakeholders and the community.

Ms Lee suggested amending the Crimes Act 1900 to make domestic/family violence an aggravating offence, and amending the Crimes (Sentencing) Act 2005 to apply mandatory sentencing to domestic violence.

Men who choke their partners, tie them up with rope, threaten them with axes, or disfigure them would receive mandatory jail terms, rather than suspended sentences or good behaviour orders.

The bill proposes imprisonment for up to seven years for assault with intent to commit another offence, inflicting bodily harm, or endangering health; imprisonment for 12 years for endangering life; 17 years for kidnapping; and 25 years for kidnapping leading to grievous bodily harm.

In the ACT, family violence currently received no extra penalties, Ms Lee stated. She argued that it deserved separate and severe treatment, and that the community wanted appropriate sanctions for malicious acts of family violence.

“It is vital that our laws and legal system are set up for the purpose of preventing and eliminating domestic and family violence,” Ms Lee said.

“Unfortunately, our existing laws do not adequately recognise the evil that is family violence, and as such, there is a concerning disconnect between what results from our court system and what the community expects when it comes to the seriousness in how family violence offences should be treated in the eyes of the law.”

Her bill is modelled on a 2005 amendment that made offences against pregnant women an aggravated offence.

DVCS was pleased the ACT Government was looking at ways to make sentencing more consistent and more of a deterrent to keep people in the community safe, Ms Stevens said.

DVCS was also pleased Ms Lee had proposed that an offence committed against a person protected under a Family Violence order would be an aggravated offence if the defendant were the person against whom the order was made and if the offence were a family violence offence.

“We need the legislation to recognise the aggravating features of domestic and family violence, and insert aggravated provisions into existing offenses,” Ms Stevens said.

Mr Rattenbury said the Assembly would need to look at the detail of both bills. “I’m sure they’ll be drafted differently, and we can look at the best way to proceed.” He expected at least one draft bill to pass by the end of the year.

While legislative change was important, Mr Rattenbury said the ACT needed to invest in service responses and programs. “So we don’t just have to rely on the police turning up every time somebody undertakes threatening behaviour, but in fact, we end the threatening behaviour.”

Domestic violence had increased 40% over the last decade, according to ACT Police figures, Ms Lee noted; 43.5% of all assaults reported involved family violence. Most of the victims were women.

Mr Williamson cited a case last year where the offender attacked his wife and threatened his daughter with an axe, smashed up the house, and drove off with the children. His 16-month prison sentence was suspended after four months. The Crown appealed the sentence on the grounds that it was inadequate and did not reflect the seriousness of the offence.

The ACT Court of Appeal agreed the sentence was inadequate, but did not resentence the offender, as he had tried to rehabilitate himself. In other jurisdictions, Mr Williamson noted, offenders would normally be resentenced and given an appropriate sentence.

Similarly, one man left his partner with 46 injuries, including permanent impairment and disfigurement; his two-year prison sentence was fully suspended when he entered a three-year good behaviour order.

Another man beat up his victim in a car, and choked her on another occasion; he received a four-year intensive corrections order.

A third offender abducted his pregnant partner, and dragged her along the road by rope. Two weeks later, he again tied her hands, and kept her in an empty house overnight. His 18-month prison sentence was suspended after 20 days, and transmuted to a three-year good behaviour order.

A fourth offender sexually assaulted his partner because she would not have sex with him; he received a two-and-a-half-year good behaviour order.

Mr Williamson stated that other Australian jurisdictions denounce and deter family violence offending by making domestic violence an aggravated offence (Queensland, Western Australia); increasing penalties for domestic violence; or applying mandatory sentencing (Northern Territory).

If you are or someone you know is the victim of sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call or visit the website of:

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