On 4 June 2020, the Minister for Women, Senator the Hon. Marise Payne, and the Minister for Families and Social Services, Senator the Hon. Anne Ruston, jointly referred terms of reference to the Committee for an inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence.
In referring the inquiry, the ministers noted that the onset of COVID-19 and associated restrictions ‘required renewed consideration of how we reduce family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia’.
The terms of reference emphasised the role of the inquiry in informing the next National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children (National Plan), and the Ministers indicated their expectation that the findings of the Committee would inform the work of the Government’s Women’s Safety Council (which has since been succeeded by the National Federation Reform Council Taskforce on Women’s Safety).
The referral of the inquiry came in the context of heightened public and media attention on issues of family and domestic violence in Australia during 2020—particularly following the murder in February 2020 of Brisbane woman Hannah Clarke and her three children, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey, by Ms Clarke’s estranged husband. This horrific event prompted widespread anguish and outrage around Australia, and also led to Ms Clarke’s parents, Sue and Lloyd Clarke, publicly campaigning for greater understanding and the national criminalisation of coercive control.
Throughout the duration of this inquiry, further incidents of family and domestic violence, including fatalities, continued to occur in the Australian community, and some particularly heinous examples were drawn to the Committee’s attention. Statistics and trends in the prevalence of family violence are discussed in Chapter 2 of this report.
Another shocking case occurred late in the inquiry, in early 2021, with the deaths of Melbourne woman Katica Perinovic and her children Claire, Anna and Matthew, in what appeared to be a murder-suicide. At the time of this report that incident remained the subject of a coronial inquiry.
These and other appalling cases of violence provided a stark and distressing backdrop to the Committee’s deliberations. They also made the Committee particularly mindful of the diversity of victim-survivors and perpetrators, and the many forms in which family, domestic and sexual violence manifest in the Australian community.
Conduct of the inquiry
Following the Committee’s adoption of the inquiry, it was advertised on the Committee’s website, with submissions invited by 24 July 2020. The Committee was conscious of the demand on potential submitters, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and provided extensions to individuals and organisations who needed extra time to make submissions.
The Committee received 298 submissions and 55 supplementary submissions, including 47 confidential submissions. Submissions received are listed at Appendix B, and published on the Committee’s website. Many of the submissions were comprehensive and detailed, and the Committee is indebted to the people and organisations who took the time to provide such high-quality evidence to the inquiry during a difficult year.
Throughout the inquiry the Committee was also provided with a number of previously-published documents and reports, which were accepted as exhibits, and are listed at Appendix C.
The inquiry focused on issues which can be difficult and traumatic for the people and families that experience them. The Committee sought to ensure that the voices of people who had experienced family violence could be heard in a safe and confidential way, including by providing an opportunity for individuals to write a short summary of their experiences and offer recommendations; and if they wished, to register to provide confidential verbal evidence to the Committee (see below).
The Committee held public hearings over 16 days between September and December 2020, gathering some 90 hours of oral evidence from a wide diversity of individuals and organisations across Australia. Due to the travel restrictions associated with COVID-19, the public hearings were conducted from Canberra, with witnesses appearing via videoconference and teleconference.
Details of the public hearings held are at Appendix D.
In addition, the Committee convened two in camera (confidential) hearings, during which it heard from 16 individuals about their lived experience of family and domestic violence, and their perspectives on current measures and systems for response. While this evidence is not able to be directly quoted in this report, it added invaluably to the Committee’s understanding, and the Committee would like to thank the individuals who participated for their courage and contribution.
Scope of the inquiry
Family violence is a wicked problem. That reality was demonstrated by the broad scope of the terms of reference given to the Committee for this inquiry, and the volume and complexity of the evidence received. The challenge for the Committee was to focus its considerations and produce meaningful recommendations in a concise way and in a very limited time.
The Committee was mindful of the importance of adding value to the work that has gone before, particularly to inform the next National Plan. As noted in the following section, recent years have seen a large number of inquiries, reviews and reports into family, domestic and sexual violence, and related issues. The evidence given to most of these inquiries remains on the public record and where relevant, findings and recommendations made previously on issues raised before this inquiry are referenced in this report.
The Committee has focused this report in two main ways.
One is to consider big picture, systemic issues that are essential to ensuring effective national approaches to preventing and responding to family, domestic and sexual violence—particularly in the next National Plan. These include the coverage of the Plan, coordination between the Australian Government, state and territory governments, and local governments, and evaluating the effectiveness of prevention, early intervention and response work already taking place.
The other focus is on issues relevant to family violence that are new, emerging or have not been subject to significant consideration in previous inquiries, or in the first National Plan. These include new or newly-recognised manifestations of violence such as coercive control and technology-facilitated abuse, and the impact of COVID-19. They also include the impact of family, domestic and sexual violence on particular groups within the Australian community.
Importantly, this report does not focus on family law. As noted below, Australia’s family law system was the subject of a joint committee inquiry taking place simultaneously with this one. Moreover, this Committee conducted a major inquiry into family law and family violence in the previous Parliament. While this report may mention aspects of family law where relevant to other topics, it has sought to avoid duplicating the work of those previous and current inquiries, and has not considered matters relating to family law reform.
Finally, although the inquiry’s name included ‘sexual violence’, its terms of reference did not extend to the broader incidence of sexual violence in Australia outside of the family, domestic or residential context. The Committee did receive some evidence on other aspects of sexual violence, such as sexual assault in the broader community, and sexual harassment in workplaces and on campuses. The Committee acknowledges that these are important issues worthy of consideration. For the purposes of this inquiry, however, sexual violence beyond the family and domestic context has not been examined in detail.
Previous parliamentary inquiries
The terms of reference for the inquiry included a requirement that the Committee consider previous parliamentary reviews focussed on domestic and family violence.
Preventing and responding to family violence has been the focus of a number of parliamentary and other inquiries at Commonwealth, state and territory level over the last several years. Some submitters raised the issue of “inquiry fatigue” and drew the Committee’s attention to the large number of previous inquiries and the recommendations made as part of their reports.
Current and recent inquiries by the Parliament of Australia examining family violence and related issues include:
Joint Select Committee on Australia's Family Law System (interim reports October 2020 and March 2021, final report due by 30 June 2021);
Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, Inquiry into domestic violence with particular regard to violence against women and their children, (reported May 2020);
Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, The practice of dowry and the incidence of dowry abuse in Australia, (reported February 2019);
House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, A better family law system to support and protect those affected by family violence, (reported December 2017);
Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee, Delivery of Outcome 4 of the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children 2010-2022 (reported December 2017);
Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee, Domestic violence and gender inequality (reported November 2016);
Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee, Domestic violence in Australia (reported August 2015).
The inquiry conducted by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee in 2020 formed the view that ‘conducting another lengthy, broad-ranging public inquiry into domestic and family violence in Australia at this time would be of limited value’. It therefore did not call for submissions or hold public hearings, and its report consisted of a review of other recent inquiry reports, with no recommendations. At the time its report was tabled the Law Council of Australia described the inquiry as ‘little more than a literature review’.
The second interim report of the Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Family Law System, presented on 15 March 2020, noted that issues relating to family violence were raised in many submissions to its inquiry. The report included some recommendations about family violence and family law, including improvements to the consistency of legal definitions and proceedings, information sharing, and training for legal professionals.
Appendix A contains a list of the recommendations of the inquiries listed above, and the Government’s responses to them. Recommendations made by these previous inquiries on matters considered in this inquiry are also further discussed in the relevant sections of this report.
Other notable reports
The Committee also noted reviews and reports relevant to family and domestic violence conducted by bodies other than the Australian Parliament in recent years.
Some state and territory parliamentary committees have conducted recent inquiries into family violence policy issues or legislation, including the ACT in 2019 and Western Australia in 2020. In addition, a ‘Special Taskforce’ convened in Queensland in 2014-15 conducted a major inquiry resulting in 140 recommendations to that state’s government.
Two recent reviews of particular significance to this inquiry, conducted by non-parliamentary bodies, are discussed in relevant sections of this report.
In 2018-19 the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) undertook an audit of the targeting of funding and actions under the National Plan, and whether the Department of Social Services had been effective in administering the Plan. The Auditor-General’s report was presented in June 2019.
The ANAO report and the Department’s response to it are discussed in more detail in the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee’s 2020 report.
In Victoria, a Royal Commission was established in 2015 following a number of family violence-related deaths, notably that of Luke Batty. The Royal Commission’s inquiry was comprehensive and its eight-volume report, presented in March 2016, contained 227 recommendations. The Victorian Government accepted and committed to implement all of them. The Royal Commission had a major impact on domestic violence policies and actions in Victoria, and its recommendations were mentioned in many submissions from organisations in that state.
Defining family violence
At the Commonwealth level, the Family Law Act 1975 was amended in 2011 to include the following definition of family violence:
violent, threatening or other behaviour by a person that coerces or controls a member of the person’s family… or causes the family member to be fearful.
The provision also sets out examples of behaviour that may constitute family violence (without limiting the definition):
a sexual assault or other sexually abusive behaviour; or
repeated derogatory taunts; or
intentionally damaging or destroying property; or
intentionally causing death or injury to an animal; or
unreasonably denying the family member the financial autonomy that he or she would otherwise have had; or
unreasonably withholding financial support needed to meet the reasonable living expenses of the family member, or his or her child, at a time when the family member is entirely or predominantly dependent on the person for financial support; or
preventing the family member from making or keeping connections with his or her family, friends or culture; or
unlawfully depriving the family member, or any member of the family member's family, of his or her liberty.
The definition does not include a requirement that any fear experienced by the victim-survivor of the violence is objectively ‘reasonable’.
Defining family violence can be complex, and the legal definition of family, domestic and sexual violence varies between Australia’s federal, state and territory jurisdictions. Chapter 2 considers this issue of inconsistency in more detail. Other chapters in the report also note issues raised in evidence to the Committee about what may not be adequately covered in current definitions of family violence.
Structure of this report
This report consists of eight chapters.
Chapter 2 provides background on family violence in Australia, and the National Plan. It discusses related matters including the adequacy of data and statistics about family and domestic violence, and evidence received about issues and priorities for the next National Plan.
Chapter 3 discusses the roles of and coordination between the Australian Government, state and territory governments, and local governments concerning policies and programs to prevent and respond to family violence, as well as the monitoring and evaluation of activities in that regard.
Chapter 4 examines non-physical forms of family and domestic violence, including coercive control, technology-facilitated abuse and financial abuse.
Chapter 5 focuses on responses to family violence in specific communities within Australia whose experiences and needs require particular consideration. These include Indigenous communities, LGBTQI people, people with disability, culturally and linguistically diverse communities, older people and children.
Chapters 6, 7 and 8 examine the three key areas into which responses to family and domestic violence are generally divided:
Chapter 6: primary prevention;
Chapter 7: early intervention (including behaviour change); and
Chapter 8: responses to assist victim-survivors, including support services, related services and the justice system.
In each case the chapter examines work already underway, and issues and suggestions raised in evidence to improve and strengthen the national effort.
Each chapter outlines evidence considered by the Committee on multiple issues. It then concludes by setting out the Committee’s comments and recommendations in relation to all of the matters covered in the chapter.
A note on terminology
There is much variation in the terminology used to describe the behaviours discussed in this report, those who perpetrate them, and those who are affected by them. The Committee does not take a view on the correctness or otherwise of particular terminology, but has sought to adopt consistent terms for some key concepts in this report.
The Committee is also conscious of strong views among many who contributed to the inquiry about the gendered nature of family, domestic and sexual violence and the people engaged with it. Those issues are explored in parts of this report, particularly in Chapters 5 and 6. The Committee has otherwise avoided adopting gendered terms for perpetrators and victim-survivors of violence.
Quotes from submitters and witnesses in this report respect and retain the terminology used by those who provided them.
Where the Committee has drafted text, the following terminology has generally been adopted, unless otherwise specified:
where family, domestic and sexual violence is abbreviated: ‘family violence’ or ‘FDSV’;
those who commit FDSV are referred to as ‘perpetrators’; and
people who experience FDSV may be described as such, or as ‘victim-survivors’.