Concepts of family violence

5.6 There is no single nationally or internationally agreed definition of family violence. As noted in Chapter 2, the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines violence against women as ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life’.[2]

5.7 As the Australian Bureau of Statistics has noted, definitions of what constitutes family violence are inherently likely to differ across the legal sector, researchers and service providers. These definitions do not always necessarily align with community understandings, or victim and offender perspectives, of what constitutes family violence.[3]

5.8 Partnerships Against Domestic Violence—an Australian intergovernmental taskforce on family violence—adopted the following definition of family violence in 2003:

Domestic violence is an abuse of power perpetrated mainly (but not only) by men against women in a relationship or after separation. It occurs when one partner attempts physically or psychologically to dominate and control the other. Domestic violence takes many forms. The most commonly acknowledged forms are physical and sexual violence, threats and intimidation, emotional and social abuse and economic deprivation. Many forms of domestic violence are against the law.

For many indigenous people the term family violence is preferred as it encompasses all forms of violence in intimate, family and other relationships of mutual obligation and support.[4]

5.9 Conduct constituting family violence can encompass varying degrees of severity and take many forms—physical abuse, sexual abuse, damage to property, emotional abuse, social abuse, economic abuse, psychological abuse, and spiritual abuse. Whatever form family violence takes, a central feature is that it involves a person exercising control and power over the victim by inducing fear, for example by using threatening behaviour.[5] Definitions of family violence usually recognise that violence can constitute more than single ‘incidents’. It can involve ‘a continuum of controlling behaviour and violence, which can occur over a number of years’.[6]

5.10 While the definition of family violence may not appear to be a practically important issue, it is necessary to understand precisely what constitutes family violence in each of the state and territory jurisdictions in order to consider whether family violence laws interact with the Family Law Act or with the criminal law in any particular matter and, if they do, the nature of that interaction. The scope of the various definitions of family violence in family violence legislation may, in a particular case, mean that there will be no interaction with the Family Law Act or with the criminal law. For example, certain definitions cover conduct that may justify a protection order but the conduct does not amount to a criminal offence. Conversely, some definitions of family violence in family violence legislation are linked expressly to the criminal law, and result in an interaction between family violence and criminal legislative regimes at some level.

5.11 Critically assessing definitional issues is relevant to the important question of when it is appropriate for the law to intervene to provide protection or other forms of redress to victims. On the one hand, excessively narrow definitions of family violence might cause gaps in protection to victims. On the other, excessively broad definitions may detract from the significance of family violence or devalue the experience of its victims or—as noted by one stakeholder—promote the abuse of the protection order system.[7]

5.12 The discussion below focuses on the definition of family violence in family violence legislation.

[2]Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women 20 December 1993, UN GAOR, A/RES/48/104, (entered into force generally on 23 February 1994), art 1.

[3] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Conceptual Framework for Family and Domestic Violence (2009).

[4] Partnerships Against Domestic Violence, What is Domestic Violence? (2003) cited in B Fehlberg and J Behrens, Australian Family Law: The Contemporary Context (2008), 179.

[5] See, eg, National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, Time for Action: The National Council’s Plan for Australia to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, 2009–2021 (2009), 13–14.

[6] Access Economics, The Cost of Domestic Violence to the Australian Economy, Part I (2004), 3.

[7]Comment on ALRC Family Violence Online Forum: Women’s Legal Service Providers.