Accurately identifying the predominant aggressor is a basic prerequisite for ensuring victim survivors are protected and perpetrators are held accountable for their use of family violence.
Yet we know that some victim survivors continue to be misidentified as perpetrators, with far-reaching, life-altering negative consequences.
In choosing this topic, we set out to examine the progress that has been made in:
- supporting workforces to accurately identify predominant aggressors
- establishing system processes to remedy misidentification at the earliest opportunity.
In exploring these matters, this report finds multiple areas that need further attention, including the need for a greater understanding of the dynamics of family violence and coercive control, clearer guidance and more joined-up processes for dealing with misidentification, and better system monitoring.
A note on language
In our research and consultations, the terms ‘primary aggressor’ and ‘predominant aggressor’ were often used interchangeably, and we accept that their intended meaning is the same. When we use either of these terms, we are talking about a family violence perpetrator, as opposed to the victim survivor.1 Some organisations have expressed reservations about these terms, noting that they can imply mutuality of violence, coercion and control or may promote a focus on a particular incident rather than the full context of the relationship. Nevertheless, we accept the documented definitions of these terms and use them throughout this report.
We understand that in some cases the predominant aggressor may not be immediately obvious. A victim survivor may use force as self-defence or as an act of resistance to their ongoing abuse. This does not make them a perpetrator, and isn’t evidence of mutual violence.
When discussing the victim survivors, we also at times use the term adopted by ANROWS2, the ‘person most in need of protection’ and suggest this provides a useful point of emphasis when determining who is a perpetrator and who is a victim survivor within a relationship.
A note on scope
Misidentification of the perpetrator and victim survivor can occur in all types of relationships. However, this report primarily, but not wholly, focuses on the misidentification of women in heterosexual intimate partner relationships because this is the form of misidentification that has been raised with us most strongly by stakeholders. We acknowledge, however, that misidentification has been identified as a significant issue within LGBTIQ+ relationships and also occurs in other familial relationships (particularly child–parent/carer relationships).
1 However, we found three examples that distinguished between the ‘primary aggressor’ in the incident and the ‘predominant aggressor’ in the relationship. We understand this to be a result of a misunderstanding of how police define ‘primary aggressor’. These distinctions were found in: Child Protection trainer materials provided by DFFH to the Family Violence Reform Implementation Monitor, 2021; Magistrates’ Court of Victoria (2020): Family Violence Practitioner Guidelines, v1, p. 19; Family Safety Victoria (2018): Interim Operational Guidance to the interface between Support and Safety Hubs and Community Operations and Victims Support Agency, p. 13.
2 ANROWS (2020): Accurately identifying the ‘person most in need of protection’ in domestic and family violence, key findings and future directions. Available at: anrows.org.au/project/accurately-identifying-the-person-most-in-need-of-protection-in-domestic-and-familyviolence-law (accessed 7 July 2021).
Reviewed 22 February 2022