Victoria’s top cop wants police powers expanded to deal with domestic violence more decisively in the field.
Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton says family violence is the largest single issue police deal with — taking up a staggering 40 per cent of police work.
That’s a call for help every seven minutes.
A woman is killed by a former or current partner on average every week in Australia, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. For men, the casualty rate averages one every month.
Graham Ashton is calling for his officers to be given new powers to issue intervention orders on the spot, circumventing the courts.
“That for us would result in … less trauma for victims and certainly for offenders, more clarity around what the expectations are on them,” Mr Ashton said.
“It avoids the need for parties to have to come together at court, spend all day hanging around the court precincts together for what’s five or 10 minutes before a magistrate.”
Under current laws, when police respond to a family violence call, they only have power to issue a family violence safety notice which provides immediate, but temporary, protection while the victim waits for a court to issue a more permanent intervention order.
A number of recent high-profile murders of women have again drawn attention to flaws in the system designed to protect victims of domestic violence.
The coroner last week released her findings into the murder of Joy Rowley by her one-time partner in 2011 on the same day as the deaths of three other women dominated the headlines in Victoria.
Ms Rowley was strangled in her home by James Martin Mulhall, who is serving a 16-year jail term for her murder.
Joy Rowley was murdered by her one-time partner in 2011. (Supplied: Domestic Violence Victoria)
Police acknowledged there were multiple times they should have acted to prevent an escalation of Mulhall’s behaviour, but failed to.
It led the coroner to recommend Victoria Police review all family violence-related deaths where there was a known history of violence.
But the force wants changes made to the intervention order system now.
Police issued more than 11,000 safety notices last financial year — almost double the number issued four years ago.
The safety notice also acts as an application for an intervention order and requires the offender to appear at a magistrates court within five days to begin the court process for obtaining an order.
Under the proposal from Victoria Police, safety notices would be done away with and replaced with intervention orders which could be issued by officers in the field.
The victim and offender would only have to go to court if either party wanted to challenge the order.
Mr Ashton said in the vast majority of cases, intervention orders aren’t contested in court, and victims would be better served not being required to attend court.
“The victim has to come to court and often be in the same room as the perpetrator while the issues are still really hotly contested and the emotions are still there,” he said.
“We feel that in a lot of those cases the orders that are made ultimately by the magistrate, are in line with the safety notice already, so they’re not really contentious contested matters.
“I have had magistrates express frustration to me that they’re only getting five to 10 minutes on any one case, and some of those cases they really need to put some significant time into.
“The magistrates could spend time on the quality matters, those contested matters, that they really need to put the time into,” Mr Ashton said.
Police can currently only issue temporary protection orders in the field. (ABC News: Margaret Burin )
Investment in courts ‘takes priority’
But Domestic Violence Victoria is not confident police should be granted extra quasi-judicial powers.
Chief executive Fiona McCormack said victims were normally distressed when they called police for help and should not be asked to make decisions about the conditions of an intervention order on the spot.
“When women end up at court … they will have had time to have legal advice at the court around things like ensuring the children are included on the order,” she said.
“Asking a woman at that point to make those decisions is not realistic and would only end up with women being in situations where they have an order that’s just not going to work for them.
“We’ve had a Royal Commission into Family Violence which provides us with the roadmap of the system we need to build.
“Investment in courts is a really important priority and we would see following that map that’s been provided to us by the royal commission as a real priority.”
Royal commission called for wait-and-see approach
The Royal Commission into Family Violence has already examined Victoria Police’s proposal to give officers the power to issue intervention orders in the field.
In its final report handed down in 2016, it recommended the Victorian Government wait five years before seriously considering the scheme.
The Commission found the proposal could free up court and police resources, but that Victoria Police would need to significantly improve the quality and consistency of its response to family violence before it could be considered.
Since then, Victoria Police has established a Family Violence Centre of Learning at the police academy and delivered new training to its officers.
Mr Ashton said the force had lifted its level of knowledge and improved its service to a point where the proposal should be implemented three years earlier than the Royal Commission recommended.
But Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre chief executive Annette Gillespie said police were still mistaking domestic violence victims for perpetrators.
“Women can sometimes be labelled as the perpetrator of violence when in fact they’ve been experiencing violence for many, many years and are really defending themselves against that violence,” she said.
“It’s so important that not only is … the perpetrator held accountable for that violence but that women get the support that they need.
“Sometimes going to court can mean that they are linked into the support services that they require.”
Victorian Police Minister Lisa Neville has asked the Department of Justice to develop a plan to implement the police proposal and start consulting with police and the courts.