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Specialist Family Violence Courts

The Magistrates’ Court of Victoria has had a range of ‘specialist’ family violence powers, functions and services operating for many years at some of its nearly 60 court locations.

The Magistrates’ Court of Victoria has had a range of ‘specialist’ family violence powers, functions and services operating for many years at some of its nearly 60 court locations.6 The Royal Commission recommended that all family violence matters be heard and determined in specialist family violence courts. It recommended that the system evolve to achieve this by having the functions of the Family Violence Court Division and specialist family violence services be extended to operate at all 14 headquarter Magistrates’ Courts across Victoria, including those courts that already had some specialist family violence functions, such as Moorabbin and Werribee Magistrates’ Courts.

The 2017 state budget allocated $130 million over four years to the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria to respond to the Royal Commission’s recommendations. This funding commitment included both capital and operational funding to create five new Specialist Family Violence Courts (SFVCs) across Victoria.

The Magistrates’ Court developed a new SFVCs model to progress this work, bringing together different elements of good practice that had been operating at different courts into one holistic model which includes more staff specialised in family violence (both legal and non-legal) and access to support services. A significant focus of this work is to achieve greater consistency in family violence functions and service across courts.

The model also includes:

  • Specialist Magistrates who have powers to mandate counselling such as men’s behaviour change programs
  • purpose-built environments that are more secure and accessible and provide choice for how affected family members participate in the court process, including separate waiting areas
  • consistent listings policy and practices across courts, including list capping
  • new processes to increase efficiency
  • a new ongoing family violence learning and development program for all specialist family violence staff working in courts

Funding

The Royal Commission recommended that SFVCs be established at 14 courts in total, and so far funding has been allocated for the first five court locations. Some of the remaining nine courts already have aspects of the specialist family violence model operating, such as specialist family violence staff.

Governance

The Magistrates’ Court of Victoria is managing its response to the Royal Commission’s recommendations as a coordinated program of work, which includes the specialist courts and extends to a range of other initiatives. It has established a robust governance structure, shown in Figure 2A, with an overarching program Steering Committee chaired by the Chief Magistrate, a Program Board chaired by a Deputy Chief Magistrate overseeing the court’s workstreams (managed as projects), and a separate Project Control Group for the Koori Family Violence project (which is co-chaired by a Deputy Chief Magistrate and an Aboriginal community leader).

Figure 2a: Government Structure of Courts Family Violence Reform Program 

Courts Family Violence Reform Program Steering Committee chair: Chief Magistrate, Koori Family Violence PRoject Control Group Chair: Deputy Chief Magistrate, Projects and workstreams: Operations workstream. Whole of Government workstream, Family Violence Digital Transition Project, Perpetrator Interventions Project, Family Law Project, SPecialist Family Violence Courts Project, Koori Family Violence Project, Workforce development workstream, Family Violence Contact Centre Project

Source: FVRIM, based on information from the Magistrates' Court of Victoria 

The Steering Committee and Program Board actively monitor and manage risks, including considering the impacts of any changes to timeframes on other areas of the reform. This approach has enabled some beneficial actions in managing the implementation of these complex reforms, as shown by the following examples:

  • The capital works to build new courts was a separate project from developing and implementing the operational model but the steering committee’s oversight of both allowed reallocation of resources when there were some delays.
  • The Program Board identified that specialist court usage can be impacted by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal’s (VCAT) use of the same premises. This matter was escalated to the Steering Committee which subsequently invited VCAT to attend its meetings, where they now present a status report at each meeting. This has created opportunities to actively manage this risk as any challenges occur with court availability.
  • At the initiation of the Family Law Demonstration Pilot Project, the lack of family law legal assistance within the courts was identified as a key project risk. This matter was escalated to the Steering Committee which approved a proposal, and the allocation of necessary funds from its program contingency funds, for Victoria Legal Aid to recruit a senior lawyer and establish a private practitioner legal advice scheme to address this risk.

A dependency register has recently been created to document those elements of the reform activity, both within and external to the Magistrates’ Courts, which are inter-connected. The dependency register is being used as a strategic risk management tool. It also enables reporting and management of dependencies and strategic communication with external agencies.

The Magistrates’ Court has an outcomes framework for its family violence reform activities which is connected to the Family Violence Outcomes Framework. An evaluation of the program has commenced with the evaluators appointed in September 2019. The first findings from the evaluation are due in 2020, with others due in 2021 and 2022.

Implementation progress

The Shepparton SFVC (shown at Figure 2B) commenced operation on 30 September 2019 and the Ballarat SFVC commenced operations in November 2019. As at October 2019, the Moorabbin court was forecast to be opened in March 2020 and Heidelberg and Frankston courts in November 2020. The Magistrates' Court advised that delays with opening these courts are a result of the delayed building program.

A trial offering remote hearings has also commenced, so that a victim can give their statement in a different and confidential location from the court where the judge and perpetrator are located. Remote hearings aim to reduce the risk of violence at court, minimise the trauma associated with face-to-face interactions and increase the choice available to victim survivors as to how they participate in the court process. In the first three months of the trial, which commenced in July 2019 at the headquarter court in Geelong, three out of four of all victims in self-initiated matters took up the option of a remote hearing.

Figure 2b: Shepparton Specialist Family Violence Court 

Source Magistrates' Court of Victoria

An important part of the SFVC model is positive early engagement with the police and court as well as referrals to appropriate legal and non-legal support services. This includes confirming special requirements, such as whether an interpreter is needed, whether there are any accessibility requirements or plans to bring children to court. The consideration of children has been flagged as a future area of focus. The Magistrates’ Court has committed to consult with stakeholders to understand how the specialist courts can ‘better respond to the needs of children and young people, and to formally incorporate this into the model’.7 This is a critical piece of work that will make a substantial impact to responding to the Royal Commission’s recommendations when it is progressed.

A trial offering remote hearings has also commenced, so that a victim can give their statement in a different and confidential location from the court where the judge and perpetrator are located. Remote hearings aim to reduce the risk of violence at court, minimise the trauma associated with face-to-face interactions and increase the choice available to victim survivors as to how they participate in the court process. In the first three months of the trial, which commenced in July 2019 at the headquarter court in Geelong, three out of four of all victims in self-initiated matters took up the option of a remote hearing.

Figure 2c: Locations of Specialist Family Violence Courts - existing and planned 

Existing locations, Planned locations, Shepparton, Ballarat, Heidelberg, Moorabin, Frankston Source: FVRIM based on information from Magistrates' Court of Victoria

The new specialist courts are part of a broader program of work that includes:

  • identifying the workforce needed to support a family violence response across all courts
  • reviewing assets and security at courts to ensure safety
  • improving access to the SFVC model for all Victorians
  • improving perpetrator accountability.

As a part of its response to recommendation 63 of the Royal Commission, the Magistrates’ Court established a Family Violence Contact Centre which commenced operating in May 2018 and now receives approximately 6,500 enquiries per month that were previously managed by individual courts. The Contact Centre is providing a more timely and accessible service to the public, as well as creating efficiencies by freeing up staff time at local courts.

Koori family violence

The Royal Commission recommended specific work to improve the experience of Aboriginal people experiencing family violence, which included extending the jurisdiction of the Koori Magistrates’ and County Courts to include offences where it is alleged that a family violence intervention order has been contravened. The Mildura Koori Magistrates’ and County Courts commenced hearing contraventions of intervention order matters in May 2019 and have heard 20 such matters to date.

Umalek Balit (meaning ‘give strength’ in Woiwurrung, the language of the Wurundjeri people) is a service that includes women’s and men’s practitioners working with Aboriginal people to guide them through the court process, including family violence-related intervention orders and criminal or Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal matters. The service has been developed in conjunction with the Aboriginal community and builds on a program first developed at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court.

Umalek Balit was officially launched in November 2018 and has now been implemented at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court where it has supported 92 clients (70 per cent male) to date. It has also been operating at Mildura Law Court since May 2019 where it has supported 63 clients (40 per cent male) in its first six months. The service is planned to be integrated into the new SFVCs, commencing with Shepparton and Ballarat in 2019, and is progressing well.

Voices of victim survivors

The Magistrates’ Court has taken some significant steps to ensure that the voices of victim survivors of family violence are incorporated into its work. It has created a Victim Consultant role (one of the members of the Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council (VSAC), discussed further in chapter 6) to provide input across its reform program. The role provides practical advice from a victim’s perspective of how people use the system and how service delivery can be improved. A representative of VSAC also sits on the Chief Magistrate’s Family Violence Taskforce.

The following reform activities have all involved victim survivors’ voices being applied in practice:

  • review of the Family Violence Intervention application form
  • development of the Family Violence Contact Centre service model
  • speaking with all family violence Registrars and Practitioners about the importance of their roles in a victim’s journey
  • review of the content of court process information and materials to ensure they are relevant to victim survivors and written in plain language
  • various program design workshops
  • review of training materials for staff and the judiciary.

Footnotes

6. Royal Commission into Family Violence (2016): Report and Recommendations, Vol 3, p. 120.

7. Magistrates’ Court of Victoria (2019): Specialist Family Violence Courts Operating Model, p. 66.

Reviewed 05 May 2021

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