Are apprehended violence orders worth the paper they’re written on? Should our court system get more serious about the protection of domestic violence victims?
It’s not often that journalists are allowed into a usually closed domestic violence court, but Clare Blumer had a birds-eye view of magistrate Colin Strofield as he worked hard at trying to determine who was telling the truth. Strofield (at Holland Park Magistrates Court in Brisbane) tries to cut through contradictory testimonies by observing how the parties behave towards each other while they’re in the courtroom. Different stories, genders and ages of victims, but most commonly observed are orders made in response to female spouses. Different states in the country have varying names and definitions for the orders, which also means that if victims move states then they need new orders. We may have heard them being called AVO’s (apprehended violence orders) or DVO’s (domestic violence orders) and more recently changes have been underway to make orders transferable across different jurisdictions.
Orders are issued according to the magistrates decision. In the courtroom, if the respondent (or perpetrator) doesn’t accept what the aggrieved (or victim) has said about their behaviour, then they can ask for a hearing. Evidence and sworn statements will then be required from witnesses. The magistrate says the only acceptable evidence submitted during these domestic violence court days is the statement of the aggrieved, and that rules over whatever the respondent says in the court, unless they’re willing to testify under oath at a hearing. If it needs to go to the next stage then Strofield may keep a temporary protection order in place until a hearing takes place and then a more rigorous weighing up of stories will take place.
Are apprehended violence orders effective?
Although apprehended violence orders work in an overwhelming majority of cases, they don’t offer enough protection for some women.
Victoria Cullen was one such victim. Within three months of taking out a protection order she was dead. Police had been prompted to take out an apprehended violence order to protect Mrs Cullen from her husband, Christopher Cullen, after displays of abuse against her increased. The mother of three children was just 39. He had stabbed her to death after assaulting her and putting her into the boot of his car. The boot had scratch marks from her struggle to get out. Last year he was found guilty of her murder and sentenced to a maximum of 30 years in jail.
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One in three intimate homicide victims are killed by current or former partners against whom an apprehended violence order has been issued. Victoria Comrie Cullen is just one such recent victim. Mrs Cullen is an example of the one in three intimate homicide victims killed by their partners – either current or former – in NSW when an apprehended violence order is in place. A recent study by the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research suggested that the majority of victims and perpetrators didn’t come to the attention of the police for domestic violence before the murder.
Some, however, do.
Another homicide victim, Sharon Michelutti, had apprehended violence orders in place against her partner, Gavin Debeyer, for years. He allegedly stabbed her at her home. Leila Alavi, only 26, was murdered with a pair of scissors by her estranged husband, Mokhtar Hosseiniamraei. She had an apprehended violence order against him at the time. And there are many more stories like this.
If over the last 10 years 32.5% of intimate partner homicide victims were killed on a background of apprehended violence orders, is more strength needed in the protection system? When does a case become urgent enough for more to happen? A friend and employer of Mrs Cullen, Mrs Arciuli-Collins said “AVOs need to have stronger protection … if there has been substantial proof that this woman is in danger, there needs to be intervention of some sort that takes [the man] away and gets them help.”
Mr Ian Ross, a solicitor who regularly acts in cases involving family law and domestic violence, said in the vast majority of cases, apprehended violence orders had a very “salutary effect. . . [but] there is that small number who it doesn’t matter to and once they are determined a piece of paper won’t stop them,” he said. “I am optimistic in the vast majority of incidents that the AVO does work. Unfortunately with someone like [Christopher] Cullen, it doesn’t work but I don’t think it’s the fault of the system.”
Raising the Bar
In 2015 in Queensland alone, 19,708 applications for domestic violence protection orders were made by police. Unfortunately, 19,405 contraventions of those orders were in the same period. The maths is stunning. Both application and violations of those orders have risen by thousands since 2013.
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Recent reforms reflect the culture of zero tolerance the state is trying to develop. First time DVO breaches have been raised to a maximum of three years, with subsequent breaches to five years after Dame Quentin Bryce’s Not Now, Not Ever report. These Queensland reforms followed the horrific deaths of two women and a six-year-old girl in domestic violence attacks in the state. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced last year the Queensland Government will implement all 140 recommendations in Dame Quentin Bryce’s landmark Not Now, Not Ever report into domestic and family violence. Minister for Women, Shannon Fentiman said over four years, $31.3 million will be invested to implement the high-priority initiatives recommended in the Not Now: Not Ever report. During 2015-16, Government funding to tackle domestic and family violence, including existing programs and new measures, will total more than $66 million.
If you are experiencing family violence or know someone who is, then please contact us today. Our capable and compassionate family lawyers are available for a free, 10-minute phone consultation.