Advantages and challenges of specialisation

Advantages of specialisation

32.7 Specialisation has been promoted by many working in family violence as a strategy for achieving best practice. However, there is a real debate about whether resources—such as funding, staffing, training and education—are better concentrated in specialised units and courts, or dispersed more generally throughout the system. It is also arguable that—given the cost of family violence to the Australian community—both specialisation and greater resourcing of the system generally represent achievable best practice benchmarks.[2]

32.8 Specialisation can help to ensure that victims have contact with those in the system—including judicial officers, lawyers, prosecutors, police and family dispute practitioners—with a better understanding of the nature, features and dynamics of family violence.[3] This knowledge and understanding allows these individuals to better assist victims in navigating the legal, social and health systems by connecting together legal frameworks and social services.[4]

32.9 Specialisation can also operate to improve the system as a whole. As many stakeholders have emphasised, attitudinal and behavioural change—although highly desirable—can be slow to achieve. Specialisation acts both as a way of attracting those with an interest and aptitude for family violence work, and allows education, training and other resources to be focused upon a smaller group for more immediate results and improved outcomes. Specialists can help to promote attitudinal change if they are given opportunities to share information with, and to contribute to, the education and training of those in the general system.[5]

32.10 Specialisation can improve consistency and efficiency in the interpretation and application of laws as a result of shared understandings and the awareness and experience of a smaller number of decision makers. Specialists can identify and solve problems more quickly and effectively and can develop and promote best practice that can then be mainstreamed to drive change in the system more generally.

32.11 In the long run, the efficiency gains through specialisation may produce better outcomes that result in substantial savings elsewhere in the system—for example, earlier and more effective legal intervention may result in fewer cases requiring child protection agencies to intervene, and fewer demands on medical and psychological services.

32.12 For these reasons, specialists are more likely to be effective in addressing family violence, and in their ability to make the system more efficient as a whole.

Challenges of specialisation

32.13 Stakeholders have identified a number of operational challenges associated with specialisation. These include: the accessibility of specialised services; the appropriate selection and retention of specialists; and the ongoing need to ensure and maintain adequate resourcing and support.[6]

32.14 One commonly expressed concern is that specialised services, because of the resources they require, may only reach a certain segment of the population, leaving some victims of family violence—especially those in regional and remote communities—no better off. This can lead to a degree of arbitrariness in which some victims receive better treatment than others.

32.15 Another concern relates to how specialists are selected. The attitudes and aptitudes of specialists are vital to ensuring consistent and quality outcomes for victims. Many models of specialisation, however, lack clarity about the selection criteria for specialised roles.[7] For example, most specialised courts in Australia do not require judicial officers working in the courts to receive particular training as a prerequisite for appointment.[8]

32.16 The recruitment and retention of staff is a common challenge for many specialised units working in the area of family violence. Due to the traumatising nature of the work, specialists can suffer ‘burnout’, unless adequate support and recognition is provided.

32.17 A related issue is the need to ensure appropriate incentives—including career progression opportunities—for specialists. For example, in 2006, the New South Wales (NSW) Ombudsman commented in relation to specialised police known as Domestic Violence Liaison Officers (DVLOs):

Unfortunately, there are still few, if any, incentives for police officers to act in the role, apart from the availability of regular daytime shifts. Conversely, the inability of DVLOs to work 12-hour shifts and have up to six consecutive rest days is one of the less appealing aspects of the role for many officers. There is no special allowance payable to DVLOs, and no recognised career path associated with the position. Partly for these reasons, there is little status attached to being a DVLO.[9]

32.18 There is a need to ensure that adequate human and financial resources are available for specialists, and that there is a commitment to long-term resourcing. For example, the NSW Ombudsman noted that the effectiveness of DVLOs was being hampered by inadequate access to vehicles, computers and mobile phones.[10]

32.19 The Commissions also recognise the particular challenge of ensuring that specialisation does not simply lead to parts of the system becoming so specialised as to operate in ‘silos’. As considered below, specialisation needs to be continually mainstreamed and promoted in the general system as best practice. This highlights the importance of inter-agency collaboration, information sharing, and consistent training and education for specialists and non-specialists alike.[11]

32.20 In the following sections, the Commissions consider ways to maximise the benefits of specialised family violence courts and specialised police units, while addressing, as far as possible, the operational challenges.

[2] The Commissions discuss the cost of family violence to the Australian community in Ch 1.

[3] The Commissions consider the nature, features and dynamics of family violence in Ch 7.

[4] For example, magistrates in the specialised family violence courts in Victoria, discussed below, routinely ask questions in applications for protection orders about pending prosecutions or past convictions, pending or past family law proceedings, the use of counselling and drug programs, and applications for victims’ compensation: Court Observation: Sunshine Magistrates’ Court of Victoria: Family Violence List, 25 January 2010.

[5] The Commissions emphasise below the importance of mainstreaming specialised practices. Further, in Ch 31, the Commissions note the importance of education and training (including cross-agency and intersectoral training) in promoting cultural and behavioural change in the system.

[6] North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, Submission FV 194, 25 June 2010; Women’s Legal Service Queensland, Submission FV 185, 25 June 2010; Sydney Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service, Submission FV 132, 22 June 2010; Confidential, Submission FV 81, 2 June 2010; Queensland Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian, Submission FV 63, 1 June 2010.

[7] See, eg, NSW Ombudsman, Policing Domestic Violence in NSW (1999), 47–48.

[8] By way of contrast, under s 4H of the Magistrates’ Court Act 1989 (Vic), the Family Violence Court Division (FVCD) is constituted only by magistrates gazetted by the Chief Magistrate. The Chief Magistrate is required to ‘have regard to the magistrate’s relevant knowledge and experience in dealing with matters relating to family violence’. Consultations reveal, however, that there has been some ‘dilution’ of the specialist training selection process over the life of the FVCD.

[9] NSW Ombudsman, Domestic Violence: Improving Police Practice (2006), 27.

[10] Ibid, 29.

[11] See also Chs 29, 30, 31, in relation to inter-agency collaboration, information sharing, and education and training respectively.