Policies and other resources for police, specialist family violence services, the legal sector, the judiciary and others define and provide guidance for identifying the predominant aggressor. Some of this guidance is outlined below, with an emphasis on the guidance provided to police, given their important initial role in identifying victim survivors and perpetrators when they attend family violence incidents.
Victoria Police defines the ‘primary aggressor’ as:
... the party to the family violence incident who, through known history and actions within the relationship, has caused the most physical harm, fear and/or intimidation against the other ...The primary aggressor is the perpetrator who is using violence and control to exercise general, coercive control over their partner or family member.9
Importantly, the Victoria Police Manual Family Violence distinguishes ‘the primary aggressor, through their history and pattern of coercion, power and controlling behaviour’ from a ‘victim who may have utilised self-defence or violent resistance in an incident or series of incidents’10
Victoria Police’s Code of Practice for the Investigation of Family Violence and the Victoria Police Manual Family Violence require police to identify the primary aggressor when they attend a family violence incident, and both documents provide guidance to support police to do so. To identify the primary aggressor, police are asked to consider a series of indicators, which are also reflected in MARAM guidance (refer to Box 1).
Police are warned to avoid making assumptions by considering whether someone may have been acting in self-defence and whether a perpetrator is attempting to exert undue influence over the police’s assessment of the situation. The training materials provided to police recruits ask police members to ‘look beyond the incident they are presented with’ and consider the broader context to determine the primary aggressor, alerting them to the fact that ‘the demeanour of perpetrators and victims can go against common assumptions of behaviour. For example, victims may present as angry and emotional and perpetrators calm and charming ...’11
Police decisions about who to list as the respondent (perpetrator) and affected family member (victim survivor) on the Family Violence Report (sometimes referred to as the L17) should be ‘based on future risk’.12
They must only identify one perpetrator ‘except in situations where there may be multiple aggressors and one [affected family member],13 and if they are unsure, they are advised to nominate the affected family member ‘on the basis of which party appears to be most fearful and in most need of protection.’14
Box 1: Victoria Police and MARAM guidance for identifying the primary aggressor
Victoria Police – indicators for identifying the primary aggressor:
Source: Victoria Police (2021): Victoria Police Manual Family Violence (unpublished)
MARAM Framework – key indicators for identifying the predominant aggressor:
Source: Family Safety Victoria (2021): MARAM Foundation Knowledge Guide, p. 113
The MARAM Framework articulates that ‘correctly identifying perpetrators of family violence is a critical component of risk assessment and risk management’.15 Through its Foundation Knowledge Guide and range of practice guides, it includes a series of considerations for identifying the predominant aggressor, such as those listed in Box 1, and guidance for situations where it is unclear, which includes seeking specialist family violence advice.
MARAM perpetrator-focussed guidance for services that do not specialise in working with perpetrators was released in July 2021, providing important insights into the issue of misidentification. The guidance cautions against the idea of ‘mutual violence’, noting that in most cases one party exerts coercive controlling and violent behaviour towards the other. It explicitly states that men who experience violent resistance from a woman who they have been using violence against (including physical, emotional, psychological, financial and other forms of coercive control) are not themselves victim survivors.16
Work is well underway on the MARAM comprehensive perpetrator-focussed guidance, tools and resources designed for services that specialise in this area. However, their release has been delayed due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and to allow further consideration of the issue of misidentification. Once released, these will provide specific tools for identifying the predominant aggressor and deeper advice about misidentification.
To varying degrees, training and guidance for other key workforces, such as staff from The Orange Door, the Victims Support Agency and those working in courts, also consistently define the ‘predominant aggressor’17. They describe the considerations to be made in relation to family violence and alert workforces to perpetrators who may be seeking to manipulate systems to work against a victim survivor.
9 Victoria Police (2021): Victoria Police Manual – Family Violence.
11 Victoria Police foundation training materials provided to Family Violence Reform Implementation Monitor.
13 Victoria Police (2021): Victoria Police Manual – Family Violence.
14 Victoria Police (2019): Code of Practice for the Investigation of Family Violence, edition 3, Vol 4, p. 23, Available at: police.vic.gov.au/sites/ default/files/2019-06/Code-of-Practice-2019.pdf (accessed 8 June 2021); Victoria Police (2021): Victoria Police Manual – Family Violence.
15 Family Safety Victoria (2020): Practice Guides Responsibility 7: Comprehensive Risk Assessment, p. 301. Available at: vic.gov.au/sites/ default/files/2020-05/PG%20Responsibility%207.pdf (accessed 10 June 2021).
16 Family Safety Victoria (2021): MARAM Practice Guides Foundation Knowledge Guide, p. 97. Available at vic.gov.au/maram-practice-guides- and-resources (accessed 10 June 2021).
17 In discussing government resources that relate to predominant aggressors, our focus is on the immediate system players. We have not looked at resources in universal services such as health and education, but we acknowledge these areas may also include relevant resources.
Reviewed 16 December 2021