Family Violence Intervention Orders: Effective Policy or a Piece of Paper?

By Pat Williamson-Hill

In February 2014, Wayne Wood fatally stabbed Kelly Thompson in her Point Cook home. A coronial inquest found Ms Thompson made 38 calls to police in the weeks prior to her murder detailing breaches of the intervention order she had taken out against Wood.

In March 2014, Craig McDermott brutally murdered Fiona Warzywoda with a fishing knife on a busy Sunshine shopping strip just after 12:30pm in front of their 15-year-old daughter. He was also the subject of an intervention order after repeated violence throughout the de-facto couple’s 18-year relationship.

The recent Royal Commission Into Family Violence details a fragmented system in need of a complete overhaul of services and responses. The Commission singled out family violence intervention orders for particular criticism. It found many breaches of intervention orders are not prosecuted and described police and court responses to breaches as “inconsistent, delayed and uncertain”.

The primary objective of an intervention order is to keep victims of family violence safe. Evidently, this objective is not being met. In 2013/14, there were 15,106 breaches of intervention orders in Victoria (up 284% since 2008/09).

There are two types of protection notices that can be issued in Victoria: a family violence intervention order that must be made at the Magistrates’ or Children’s court and a family violence safety notice that can be issued by a police officer responding to an incident of family violence.

The Royal Commission suggests policy and law enforcement practices means the burden of avoiding family violence falls disproportionately on victims:

family violence policy must aim to stop violence at its source. It should never be the victim’s responsibility to stop violence: those who use violence should always be held accountable for their actions.

The Safe At Home program provides victims the opportunity to stay safely in the family home while the perpetrator is removed. This should be expanded. A review of the program found that it provided victims with improved financial security and allowed children to remain at the same school. Stricter monitoring of intervention orders would enable the Safe at Home program to function more effectively.

Family violence intervention orders must be strictly enforced and monitored to increase the chances of their success. As one specialist told a monitoring report prepared by the Sentencing Advisory Council, intervention orders will never be a ‘magic shield’ for victims of family violence. However, if police and family violence workers incorporate new technology for monitoring and reporting high-risk offenders, intervention orders can become an important tool for combatting family violence. As Kelly Thompson’s murder showed, if police rely on out-dated methods such as fax machines to serve family violence orders, they will not be worth the paper they are faxed on.

Luke Batty’s senseless and violent death at the hands of his father thrust family violence and the ineffectiveness of intervention orders onto the national agenda. The passion evoked by his death must translate into meaningful policy outcomes and cultural change. The Royal Commission Into Family Violence is a significant start; now, the State government must put up the funding to ensure its recommendations are fully implemented.

Pat Williamson-Hill is currently studying a Bachelor of Laws (Graduate Entry) at La Trobe University.

La Trobe