THAT’S THE LAW: Forewarned is forearmed when it comes to domestic violence

DOMESTIC violence has been across the headlines this year and with good reason.
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There is no doubt domestic violence is one of the scourges of our society wreaking havoc on family members across the Central West.

The statistics tell us that it is prevalent, and the nature of domestic violence is such that much of it is likely to go unreported.

Attempts have been made to reinforce the preventative force of the law in this area, primarily with the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act.

This act gives the power to issue an “apprehended domestic violence order”, known colloquially as an AVO.

An AVO can prevent a person from doing a series of things, such as approaching a particular person or place if another person has “reasonable grounds to fear, and in fact fears” the commission of an act of personal violence against them, or that they are being intimidated, stalked or harassed.

It is an offence to breach an order in an AVO, punishable by a maximum of two years’ imprisonment.

The AVO is not perfect. It of course does not protect anyone against violence and relies to some extent on retrospective punishment for its effectiveness. It also is open to abuse, and the determination of whether or not an application is genuine and should be granted uses significant court time and resources (and involves all parties in the court system, which is a very stressful experience).

Ultimately an AVO suffers from the problem that something must first have happened to make the applicant afraid. This is where a new pilot scheme called the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme comes in. This scheme is based on what is known in the UK as Clare’s Law.

It is called this after Clare Wood who was murdered by her former partner, George Appleton.

Unknown to Ms Wood, Appleton had two convictions for harassment and assault of former partners, including two prison terms.

The guiding philosophy is to provide disclosure about previous abuse offences where there is a “pressing need” to do so. It gives an at-risk person a very important opportunity to find out important information about their partner. This is particularly important as abusers are often extremely loving, affectionate and romantic in the early stages of a relationship, only for their abusive side to emerge as the relationship progresses.

The Domestic Violence Disclosure Schemeis being piloted in the NSW Police Force local area commands of Oxley, Shoalhaven, Sutherland and St George, starting in early 2016.

An application can be made at station in these commands, either by the person who is, or has been, in a relationship with the subject of the application, or a third party on behalf of that person. They must reside in one of the pilot areas.

The police will make a verbal disclosure if there has been a conviction for a personal violence offence committed in a domestic relationship, or offences such as sexual offences, child abuse offence or murder. They will disclose the specific offence and the date of the conviction. Any person present at the disclosure will be required to sign an undertaking that they will not misuse any information disclosed. The subject will not be told about the disclosure.

There will be people concerned about the civil liberties aspect of this scheme. There will be concerns that it violates the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”.

Certainly there is scope for information received to be misused, however it’s not difficult to see how that could be regulated and, if necessary, sanctioned. For my part I don’t see the possible objections as outweighing the chance that a disclosure might save even one person’s life, or stop one child witnessing abuse.

A word of caution. The disclosure will include only convictions and will not include offences outside of NSW, spent convictions, section 10 orders, juvenile convictions, or AVOs. Obviously it also won’t include offences that haven’t been reported (a relevant consideration for domestic violence, which is chronically under-reported).

We will watch the operation of the pilot scheme with great interest. Given the numbers of domestic violence offences committed in the Central West, any initiative legal or otherwise that can reduce the numbers of those abused should only be welcomed provided appropriate safeguards are in place.

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