Victims’ stories crucial for commission

Legal authority Marcia Neave gives the annual Ethel Benjamin Address in Dunedin yesterday. Photo...
Legal authority Marcia Neave gives the annual Ethel Benjamin Address in Dunedin yesterday. Photo by Gregor Richardson.

Listening to victims of family violence formed an "integral'' part of the recommendations of a recent royal commission in Australia, its chairwoman Marcia Neave told an audience in Dunedin.

Ms Neave, of Melbourne, gave the 20th Commemorative Ethel Benjamin Address at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery yesterday.

Ms Neave led the Royal Commission into Family Violence in Victoria from February last year until it completed its work in March.

To enact its recommendations, in April the Victorian state government approved a $A572million ($NZ602million) urgent family violence package to be spread over two years.

The royal commission took a non-adversarial approach.

This created a "safe'' space for victims, which was "integral'' to the resulting 227 recommendations.

The commission was initiated because the system was overwhelmed with cases, and it was spurred by some "terrible cases''.

Referrals for family violence increased 83% in the three years from 2009.

That was partly a good thing, as it meant more reporting of the problem.

Women were at far greater risk of intimate partner violence than men, but the commission considered all victims, including children and people in same-sex relationships.

Police culture was a focus.

Some members of the police remained "ignorant'', and did not see family violence as "real policing'', Ms Neave said.

Lack of enforcement of protection orders was a particular problem.

Too often, it was left for victims to raise the alert to keep themselves safe, when there needed to be more monitoring of perpetrators.

Improving information sharing and data collection formed part of the recommendations.

This meant proposals for legislative change, but it also involved changing perceptions.

Many people falsely believed they were at risk of breaching privacy restrictions under existing law.

The commission ordered its own research into family violence.

There was a lack of evidence about what kind of approaches and programmes worked.

Family violence was a "wicked'' problem, in the sense that it was entrenched in society.

People frequently disagreed on its causes, but that was not part of the commission's brief.

Its focus was prevention and follow-up support, which meant listening to experts as well as victims.

Because experts frequently disagreed, the commission hosted debates with experts so it could weigh up their arguments.

Ms Neave emphasised the importance of giving immediate support to victims, for things like housing and counselling.

Bipartisan political support was crucial, and it was hoped the area would become more like road safety in that respect.

In her legal career, Ms Neave has been a judge, lawyer and academic.

Previously, she was Justice of the Court of Appeal Division in the Supreme Court of Victoria.

Hosted by the Otago Women Lawyers Society, the talk celebrates the anniversary of the first woman to be admitted as a barrister and solicitor in the southern hemisphere.

Ethel Benjamin studied law at the University of Otago and was admitted to the Bar in Dunedin on May 7, 1897.