Special Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence

Speech at the Launch of the Special Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence in Queensland      10 September 2014

Heather Douglas, h.douglas@law.uq.edu.au


Domestic and family violence touches us all. As employers, work colleagues, teachers, friends and family members, we all know someone who is living with, or has tried to leave behind, a relationship where there is family violence. It is an issue that crosses political, socio-economic, racial and age  boundaries.

University of Queensland law              lecturer Professor Heather Douglas

The kind of violence we are talking about is coercive and controlling. Such behaviour manifests itself in a wide variety of ways. In the worst cases it results in death. In 2013, 18 people died in Queensland as a result of domestic and family violence related homicides. The national Homicide Monitoring Project classified 36% of all homicides as domestic in its most recent report.[1]

The victims in domestic homicide cases, and indeed of domestic violence generally, are overwhelmingly women. While homicide is a very terrible thing, these figures don’t encapsulate the extraordinary numbers of women and children who are alive but live daily with terrible disabilities as a result of domestic violence.

In hearing a sentencing case involving assaults and threats perpetrated by a violent abuser, President McMurdo of the Court of Appeal addressed the sadly, not atypical experience of a victim of domestic violence. She said:

She was taking pain killing medication for neck, back and shoulder injuries and regularly visited a chiropractor for back and nerve damage, all resulting from the respondent's assaults. She had lost a great deal of hair and required hair extensions because her hair was damaged and uneven from his assaults. She suffered from ringing in her ears because he had hit her in the head so many times. She had a permanent black eye from the last assault. She had continuing pain from the cut to her finger and had lost feeling in the finger tip. She was suffering from depression and anxiety, was on medication for stress and anxiety and took sleeping tablets. During the course of the respondent's abuse, she was afraid he might kill her and the children. She and the children were receiving counselling. The respondent's behaviour had alienated her from her friends. The children were frightened, scared and anxious and were demonstrating behavioural problems. She was in a difficult financial position because she was unable to work due to a post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the abuse.[2]

Children are also traumatised by domestic violence when they see and hear it; sometimes they are forced to spy on a parent, used as a hostage, blamed for the violence or feel compelled to intervene.  Children may receive their own injuries or be called on to tend to the injuries of a parent,  it may be a child who calls the police and children are often made homeless as a result of domestic violence.[3]

Workplaces are impacted by domestic violence. Studies show that  productivity losses cost Australian businesses alone $1.5 billion per year in direct, indirect and lost opportunity costs through absenteeism, errors, stress, performance management, search and hiring costs, retraining costs, and permanent loss of labour capacity.[4]

Too many women and children across Queensland are currently living with serious physical and psychological injuries that have resulted from domestic violence. Too many are homeless and can not find safe refuge.   

We must ensure women and children can live safely and we must hold violent perpetrators to account and assist them to break out of their own cycles of intergenerational violence. Criminal prosecution may be one way to do this. Yet prosecutions of non-fatal offences remain low, in part women do not feel they are supported in the prosecution of offenders.

Women need much better access to court support to help them feel more confident when they appear in court for protection applications or as witnesses in criminal matters. Too often women are unrepresented next to a legally represented perpetrator. One woman I spoke to said:

I was confused. I was terrified to go into the court. I’d never been in a court room in my life.... It was all so new to me and humiliating. I was open, baring everything out there about what I’d hidden and lied about for years. And he was there with his solicitor. I didn’t have a solicitor ‘cause I didn’t have any money. I felt like I was going to throw up. I was absolutely intimidated, completely intimidated.[5]

Generally justice system responses need better support. Perpetrator programs should be mandated through the conditions of protection orders and through sentencing. Research shows that where programs are available magistrates tend to use them.[6]  Some perpetrators may also need drug and alcohol rehabilitation. This can also be one of the conditions of a protection order or sentence. 

Currently our criminal justice system may be ill equipped to respond to some of the injuries reported by women. For example consideration should be given to the abolition the defence of provocation to assault. Queensland is the only state that retains this defence.[7]

Consideration should also be given to the development of an offence of non-fatal strangulation. Such behaviours should be clearly identified on the police record, either through prosecution or through clear case histories. We know that a woman who has been strangled is 800 times more likely to be murdered by her partner or suffer really serious injury in the following weeks.[8]

Certain groups in our community are particularly vulnerable to domestic and family violence. Indigenous women and women from culturally and linguistically diverse communities are disproportionately represented. In Australia, Indigenous women and girls are 35 times more likely to be hospitalised for domestic violence related assaults than other Australian women.[9] An understanding of the needs of women from diverse backgrounds is imperative in the consideration of policy development and law reform.

In response to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s 2010 report on domestic and family violence, the Queensland   Department of Justice and Attorney General is already starting to link up all the separate aspects of the justice process so that cases can be more easily tracked. But law is but one aspect, although an important one, in an integrated response to domestic violence. 

It’s great to see the Government committing to a real expansion of support for victims and crisis accommodation.

I look forward to hearing the results of the taskforce.

For more information on the Special Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence in Queensland visit: https://www.qld.gov.au/community/getting-support-health-social-issue/dfv-taskforce/


[1] Australian Institute of Criminology, Homicide in Australia: 2008–09 to 2009–10 National Homicide Monitoring Program annual report http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/current%20series/mr/21-40/mr21.html

[2] R v Major; ex parte Attorney-General (Qld) [2011] QCA 210 (30 August 2011).

[3] Cathy Humphreys C  Domestic violence and child protection: Challenging directions for practice. Issues paper 13. Sydney: Australian Domestic & Family Violence Clearinghouse 2007.

[4] Estimates vary, generally see:  Rosa Campbell, ‘The financial cost of domestic violence’ Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse, 2011.

[5] Heather Douglas and Tanja Stark, Stories from Survivors: Domestic Violence and Criminal Justice Interventions, 2010, University of Queensland, at 70.

[6] Heather Douglas, 'Not a Crime Like Any Other: Sentencing Breaches of Domestic Violence Protection Orders' (2007) 31 (4) Criminal Law Journal 200-233

[7] Heather Douglas, 'The Criminal Law's Response to Domestic Violence: What's Going On?' (2008) 30 (3) Sydney Law Review* 439-469

[8] Heather Douglas, Robin Fitzgerald, 'Strangulation, Domestic Violence and the Legal Response' (2014) 36 (2) The Sydney Law Review 231

[9] Australian Law Reform Commission and New South Wales Law Reform Commission, Family Violence — A National Legal Response Final Report, Report No 114 (2010) <http://www.alrc.gov. au/publications/family-violence-national-legal-response-alrc-report-114>