Understanding domestic and family violence

What it is:

There is no uniform legislative definition of domestic and family violence across Australian jurisdictions. State, territory and federal legislation recognise, in different ways, that domestic and family violence can present in many forms and can occur within a variety of relationships.

The National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022-2032 encourages nationally consistent definitions of gender-based violence, and provides distinct definitions of intimate partner or domestic violence (“any behaviour within an intimate relationship (including current or past marriages, domestic partnerships or dates) that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm”) and family violence (a broader term referring “not only to violence between intimate partners but also to violence perpetrated by parents (and guardians) against children, between other family members and in family-like settings”, and notes that it is also the term preferred by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, reflecting the occurrence of violence across extended family networks. It also can include forms of modern slavery including forced marriage and servitude.

Some judicial officers may focus only on recent physical violence and view it as a single incident or as a series of discrete incidents, rather than as part of a complex pattern of violent or abusive behaviours and domination including tactics to isolate, degrade, exploit and control victims. Others may perceive the cause of the violence as relationship conflict or couple fighting and, on that basis, may, for example: emphasise shared responsibility for children; encourage parties to reconcile; make mutual protection orders for a limited period allowing the parties time to either reconcile or separate; or recommend an exchange of unenforceable undertakings where the parties promise they will be of good behaviour towards one another and not commit domestic and family violence. Some judicial officers demonstrate inconsistent approaches to the protection of children exposed to domestic and family violence by including conditions in protection orders allowing perpetrators to exercise child contact, or by granting cross orders applied for by perpetrators in an attempt to ensure that their rights in Family Court parenting proceedings are not prejudiced. These judicial perceptions of domestic and family violence may have the effect of minimising or denying the experience and impact of violence for victims and children and may overlook the risks of future violence.

Over time, judicial understanding of domestic and family violence is developing, and there is growing acknowledgement of its complexity and diversity, including coercive control. This bench book underlines a number of different forms of domestic and family violence. Where a person engages in a pattern of behaviours in order to control another person, this pattern of behaviour may be referred to as coercive control. A range of behaviours may underpin domestic and family violence, any of which may be part of a pattern of behaviour: the list is not exhaustive, and some behaviours may overlap or be understood in more than one way and require a range of judicial responses. Judicial officers have identified numerous “red flags” which might indicate the presence of coercive control in matters before them.

Reported forms of domestic and family violence, actual or threatened, include:

Who it affects:

Domestic and family violence can affect any person irrespective of age, gender, socio-economic status or cultural background. It is widely acknowledged however that women are significantly more likely than men to experience domestic and family violence.

The range of relationships within the legislative scope of domestic and family violence also varies across Australia. In all jurisdictions a relationship includes that between current or former intimate partners, and extends to relationships—more prevalent within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and culturally and linguistically diverse communities—between immediate and extended families and other communal or extended kinship relationships of mutual obligation and support.

The primary role of judicial responses to domestic and family violence is to assess and respond to risk and promote the safety of those at the risk of harm.

Certain groups within the community may be at greater risk of experiencing domestic and family violence, may be more vulnerable to its impacts, and may require different judicial responses according to their specific issues and needs. Some people may belong to multiple groups and, as a consequence, may experience heightened risk or vulnerability. These groups may include but are not limited to: