New Scarlet Letter Podcast: Dr Renata Alexander

A new Scarlet Letter podcast is now out featuring feminist academic and barrister Dr Renata Alexander.

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This interview features Renata talking about how coming from a holocaust survivor family, feminism has become the main vehicle through which she conducts her academic and legal practice. Listen to learn about how the Sit Down Girlie column came about.

We have begun the podcast series by interviewing members of the feminist legal studies group. In this episode, we focus on the work of our family violence researchers, one of the six areas of research strength we have in our Feminist Legal Studies Group.

Our six areas of particular research strength are
1. family violence;
2. alcohol, drugs and gender;
3. the impact of energy policy/climate change upon women;
4. women’s economic empowerment (including labour rights, taxation, unpaid work, privacy);
5. women, poverty and international movement;
6. reproductive health and abortion reform.

Renata is interviewed in this episode by Tamara Wilkinson and Becky Batagol.

You can access the podcast episode here through Soundcloud and iTunes.

Tamara, Renata and Becky 16 August 2017

Tamara Wilkinson, Renata Alexander (and her tights) and Becky Batagol in the interview room

Positive post-separation parenting: What works for Australian parents? Research Participants Wanted

This post is authored by Dr Kris Natalier and Dr Priscilla Dunk West, Flinders University. Priscilla and Kris study how people make sense of intimate and family relationships. This is research that we believe is important, well-conceived and worth participating in. 

 

Do you have a good relationship with your former partner?

We would like to hear about your experiences, to find out what works in building good relationships between separated parents.

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Photo: Nick Kenrick Creative Commons

We are interested in surveying and interviewing parents – men and women – who are 18 years or older and who have good relationships with their former partners.  We are interested in hearing about how you define ‘good relationships’ and how you build and maintain a good relationship with your former partner and other important people in your life: what works, what’s easy, what’s hard?

The study involves a survey and, if you wish two confidential, one-on-one, in-depth interviews: one where you tell us about your relationship with your former partner and one, around four months later, where you tell us if anything has changed.  We expect the interviews will last approximately one hour. We can interview you on the phone, by Skype, or if you live in Adelaide, in a place that suits you.

If you are interested in completing the survey, you can find it here.

If you are interested in being interviewed, or hearing more about the study please contact Priscilla [Priscilla.dunkwest@flinders.edu.au         08 8 8201 5288] or Kris kris.natalier@flinders.edu.au              08 8201 3391]

The study is conducted by Dr Priscilla Dunk West and Dr Kristin Natalier, researchers at Flinders University. Priscilla and Kris study how people make sense of intimate and family relationships. We are not employed by any service to conduct this study.

Taking part in this study is voluntary. Your decision to participate or not will not impact upon your access to any services or organisations.

No simple solution when families meet the law

By Dr Renata Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Law, Monash University

This article was originally published in The Conversation on June 1, 2016 as part of the CHANGING FAMILIES  ten-part series where authors examine some major changes in family and relationships, and how that might in turn reshape law, policy and our idea of ourselves.

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Families going through breakdown need understanding, but so do lawmakers trying to find fair outcomes from complex laws.
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It has often been said that when Australia’s white Anglo-Saxon founding fathers drafted the Constitution in 1901, they could not have foreseen how family constellations would change over the next century and how family law would (or would not) keep abreast of those changes.

We now have many different types of families. We have families with and without children, single parents and blended or step families. We have heterosexual and same-sex de facto couples; separated, divorced and widowed couples. We also have families with children born through assisted reproductive technology or altruistically “acquired” through surrogacy, adoption or foster care.

All these are well depicted in popular culture including a plethora of television shows dating back to Batman and his ward Robin, and the ever-happy blended Brady Bunch through to the contemporary How I Met Your Mother and comic Modern Family.

The truth is, however, that the Old and New Testaments hold numerous examples of precursors to the traditional nuclear family of a father, mother and two children.

Adam and Eve had two sons and then one son killed his brother, transforming their dynamic to a one-child family. Moses was abandoned and raised by strangers. Rachel could not conceive and added a child to her family through a surrogate. Ruth and Naomi were both widowed and childless but made a life together. Jesus Christ was a product of an immaculate conception and brought up by foster parents.

Given these examples, it has taken millennia for the law to catch up.

The complex web of family law

In Australia’s family law system, each of these configurations is regulated by co-existing and sometimes conflicting legislation. The Family Law Act was only the second significant piece of family law legislation enacted since the Constitution that endowed the federal parliament with powers to legislate about divorce and matrimonial matters.

However, many family law areas come under both federal and state laws, or state laws alone.

A good example of the overlap is the area of child welfare and child protection. Australia’s family law courts (namely the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court) are specialist federal courts. Their job is to determine with whom a child should live, how much time a child spends with the other parent, and other issues about the child’s long-term welfare.

But child protection and welfare cases are also heard in state courts under state laws involving state-mandated child protection agencies. So, one family can find itself embroiled at once in lengthy, expensive and emotionally taxing proceedings in different courts with different jurisdictions.

Each of these state and federal courts houses discrete hierarchies exercising different powers and applying different tests to determine the “best interests of the child”.

Judicial discretion is not unfettered and each piece of relevant legislation provides some guidance and predictability. But as former High Court justice Michael Kirby once opined, decision-making is:

… a complex function combining logic and emotion, rational application of intelligence and reason, intuitive responses to experience.

Not only are decision-makers influenced by their own views and experiences, they are informed and influenced by a burgeoning body of research in many fields of social and medical sciences. It is increasingly difficult to navigate through the vast oceans of research material available and to differentiate between “good” and “bad” research.

For example, in the early history of the Family Law Act in the 1970s, the Family Court often applied the “tender years” and “maternal preference” presumptions.

These deemed it preferable for young children up to the age of seven years to live with their mothers upon the break-up of the traditional heterosexual nuclear family. They were not prescribed by the statute itself, but rather a vestige of judicial attitudes that decided custody cases before the Family Law Act was introduced with its specialist Family Court.

Changing attitudes to family violence

Another example of the shift in judicial and community attitudes relates to the relevance of family violence in parenting cases. Historically, family law courts quarantined family violence as unrelated to parenting capacity and child welfare. A man could be “a violent husband but a good father”.

This attitude did not shift substantially until the 1990s, when both society and the courts started to recognise that witnessing family violence could cause long-term damage to children.

Another issue is whether our adversarial system of intra-family dispute resolution (another legacy of the Commonwealth) is suitable to multicultural Australia. Certainly alternative forms of dispute resolution, such as counselling and mediation, may assist. But, often, decisions supposedly reached by the disputing parties themselves are made after “bargaining in the shadow of the law” or in the shadow of gendered or culturally specific beliefs and practices.

Also, if a resolution is not reached or is not honoured and complied with, a decision needs to be made and imposed by a third party. Under our system, that third party is a judge, but the question again arises as to how judicial discretion is exercised.

Family law is a complex area without simple solutions. There are many participants and stakeholders, not least of whom are the adults and children involved.

We need to be sensitive to their needs and best interests. We also need to be respectful of those who are the decision-makers, while at the same time continuing to scrutinise and review the decision-making processes to ensure a just system.


The ConversationRead the other instalments in the Changing Families series here.

Renata Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Law, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

New Podcast: Interview Dr Ronli Sifris

The next podcast in the Scarlet Letter series from the Monash Feminists Legal Studies Group is now live on Soundcloud and iTunes.

This month, we feature feminist and health law academic Dr Ronli Sifris whose work discuses on women’s reproductive rights. In this interview, Ronli considers how her own family history has made her a feminist and discusses her work on abortion law reform, surrogacy regulation and the impact of safe access zone legislation.

Interviewers for this episode are Dr Azadeh Dastyari and Tamara Wilkinson.

Mia Freedman et al are wrong: being drunk doesn’t cause rape

by Dr Kate Seear, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Monash University

by Professor Suzanne Fraser, Professor and Project Leader, National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University

This article was originally published in The Conversation on 12 November, 2013.

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Media commentators have linked alcohol use with sexual assault.
FLICKR/Monkey Boy42

Controversy over rape, alcohol consumption, and responsibility reignited last month when US columnist Emily Yoffe penned an article provocatively titled College women: stop getting drunk. But the link between alcohol use and sexual assault is less certain than it may seem.

Yoffe argued that alcohol is often a “common denominator” in rape, quoting a 2009 US survey showing 20% of college women reported having been sexually assaulted since commencing their studies, and that 80% of these cases “involved” alcohol.

According to Yoffe, alcohol both enables sexual predators and renders women vulnerable to assault. She concluded that female college students should “start moderating their drinking”.

Despite some references to men, her focus was overwhelmingly on what women could do to avoid rape – ideas that were echoed by Australian columnist Mia Freedman.

The public response to both columns was swift and overwhelmingly critical.

Many feminists raised concerns that these messages appear to blame rape victims for attacks, which may cause further distress to women who often already blame themselves. The focus of the columns was unfairly and disproportionately on women’s actions, with too little attention paid to the actions of men.

What’s more, most rapes don’t occur in the circumstances these columnists describe – much higher rates of sexual assault occur at the hands of partners, family members, workmates, and friends.

Drugs, alcohol and crime

But Yoffe and Freedman’s assumptions about alcohol, and about cause and effect have been largely overlooked.

Two claims have been especially prominent. The first is that alcohol disorients women and makes them more vulnerable to attack. The second is that alcohol somehow makes men more impulsive and emboldens them to rape.

Such claims falter in the face of reality.

Recent research challenges the claim that alcohol and other drugs cause crime in the absence of other factors. We know most people drink alcohol (even in large volumes) but don’t perpetrate rape.

Although it’s common practice to ascribe a set of social problems or crimes to drug use, these effects are nowhere near as widely experienced as we assume.

Indeed, as sociologists of drugs and addiction already know, claims like these reveal less about drugs and more about our hopes and fears about individuals and societies.

While it might comfort us to think of rape and other violent crimes as the product of a single, controllable substance, it makes little sense to single alcohol out.

Rape is a complex phenomenon. Of course, it’s also a gendered one – men are overwhelmingly the main perpetrators and women the main victims. These factors demand a more careful and unflinching look at many issues implicated in rape, including gender discourses and practices.

There’s also a central paradox at the heart of both the columns that started this controversy.

Apparently, although alcohol has certain stable “effects”, these differ by gender. Alcohol renders women more passive and increases their physical vulnerability; it makes men more aggressive and physically powerful. These effects are compounded, Yoffe claims, by biological differences between the sexes.

Both these ideas are grounded in outdated, unproven ideas about gender differences. They reveal much about our historical cultural fantasies of heterosexual submission and domination.

Beyond simplistic approaches

We need to take care when making claims about the “causes” of rape. We also need to avoid simplistic claims about what drugs like alcohol do to people. While alcohol may sometimes be present in rape, there’s no simple, predictable, stable and consistent causal connection.

It’s essential that we face this uncomfortable reality when devising policy responses and educational strategies. If we don’t, policies and other measures for “addressing” the problem of rape may instead exacerbate it.

In particular, measures guided by simplistic assumptions may lead us to neglect other relevant issues, foster complacency, or encourage the belief that rape is a simple problem with simple solutions.

Most troublingly, we risk perpetuating a logic of rape as natural human behaviour. When alcohol “unleashes” men’s “natural” sexual aggression and magnifies women’s “natural” passivity, rape becomes a dynamic embedded in us all.

The ConversationIf we imagine that sexual violence is a part of our essential humanity, any attempt to eradicate it is unlikely to succeed.

Kate Seear, Research Fellow in the Social Studies of Addiction Concepts program at the National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University and Suzanne Fraser, Associate Professor, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

New Podcast: Dr Azadeh Dastyari

A new episode of podcast of the feminist Legal studies Group, which we call the Scarlet Letter, has just been released.

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In episode 4 of the Scarlet Letter, Dr Azadeh Dastyari links her activist upbringing in Iran to her current work on offshore processing centres  for asylum seekers and how reading feminists such as Virginia Woolf and Catharine MacKinnon as a teenager was the bridge to her current explorations of power and abuse of power by governments. You can listen to find out why Azadeh was arrested and imprisoned with her mother and how her name reflects her work.

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Dr Azadeh Dastyari

This podcasts features Dr Ronli Sifris asking the hard questions and, guest interviewer, Tamara Wilkinson, researcher in the Faculty of Law at Monash University.

You can find the Scarlet Letter via Soundcloud, iTunes or the RSS feed.

“Safe and supported”: Developing a model for mediating family violence cases beyond family law

Dr Becky Batagol, Monash University & Professor Rachael Field, Bond University

 

This article was originally published on the Australian Dispute Resolution Research Network blog on 24 April 2017

This post comes from work we are doing together focusing on how to appropriately identify and respond to cases of family violence in mediation practice outside the area of family law.

 This is our first time working together, after many years of knowing each other (we met at the National Mediation Conference in 2000). As two feminists, we are convinced that there are ways to make dispute resolution processes safer and more supportive for the women who must use them who are also victims of family violence. The project brings together Rachael’s expertise in crafting and evaluating a model for mediating family violence cases in family law through the Coordinated Family Dispute Resolution program and Becky’s expertise in family dispute resolution and follows from her work as a consultant to the Royal Commission into Family Violence in 2015. (The views here are the views of the authors and not of their employers or organisations they have worked with previously).

 Our work in this area is developing, and our thinking here is not final. This post was developed from presentations at the 5th Annual Australian Dispute Resolution Research Network meeting in Hobart in December 2016 and at the AIJA Non-Adversarial Justice Conference, Sydney in April 2017.

 

Our aim in this project is to flesh out key elements of a safe and supported model of mediation in cases involving family violence that can be used across a range of contexts.

A great deal of attention has been paid to mediating cases of family violence in the field of family law. Outside the family law field, little attention has been paid to how to appropriately identify and respond to cases of family violence in mediation practice.

In our work together we are using what we have learned from family law dispute resolution to flesh out key elements of a safe and supported model of mediation in cases involving family violence that can be used across a range of contexts.

Beyond family law, there are a range of other contexts where dispute resolution professionals will have an ongoing role in dealing with the consequences of family violence eg

  • disputes with providers of essential services, such as electricity, water, banking and telecommunications, as a result of economic abuse
  • child protection conciliation conferences/ADR in state Children’s Courts
  • the negotiation/mediation process that takes place in finalising the conditions of family violence orders in state magistrates’ courts, and
  • restorative justice contexts as an adjunct to the criminal and family violence system

We believe that the imperatives relating to dispute resolution and family violence remain broadly similar regardless of the context. There is a legitimate concern about the use of informal dispute resolution processes in cases of family violence because of deep power imbalances between perpetrators and victims. On the other hand, with a focus on safety and with appropriate support and careful attention not to minimise the violence, there are clear potential benefits of mediation for victims of family violence which can include self-determination, certainty, reduced financial and other costs and timeliness.

We use the Coordinated Family Dispute Resolution model pilot to inform an analysis of the potentialities and possible pitfalls of the use of dispute resolution in the contexts outside family law

 

Context: Coordinated Family Dispute Resolution

In 2009, the Australian Federal Attorney-General’s Department commissioned a specialised model of family mediation for matters involving a history of domestic violence. The Coordinated Family Dispute Resolution model (CFDR) was piloted between 2010 and 2012 in five different locations around Australia, and evaluated by AIFS.  CFDR was designed to support parties with a history of family violence to achieve safe and sustainable post-separation parenting outcomes. The model’s design sought to provide a multidisciplinary approach within a framework designed to specifically address some of the issues arising from a power imbalance resulting from a history of domestic violence. AIFS noted that the model is comprised of four case-managed phases which are implemented in ‘a multi-agency, multidisciplinary setting (which) provide a safe, non-adversarial and child-sensitive means for parents to sort out their post-separation parenting disputes’.

Eventually, funding was not provided for full roll-out of model due to political, resource and funding issues, although the fight for funding for CFDR continues.

The CFDR model was complex and multifaceted as the table below shows:

CFDR

 

The special features of CFDR which work together to create the potential for safe and just outcomes – and which could be integrated into the diverse dispute resolution contexts we discuss further below – include:

1. A coordinated response

The CFDR model demonstrated that it is important to bring a range of professionals together including government and community agencies to achieve a safe process, and it is critical that these diverse agencies and professionals share information and communicate effectively with each other.

2. A focus on specialist risk assessment

A critical element of the CFDR model was the integration of specialist risk assessment across the model’s practice which maintained the safety of the participants, and particularly the victims of violence and their children, as the highest priority. The safety focus of the risk assessment process went significantly beyond the usual FDR intake screening process which predominantly assesses that the parties’ have the capacity to participate effectively in the mediation process. These specialist risk assessments were conducted only by qualified and experienced DV and men’s workers with highly developed risk assessment skills, including an ability to identify ‘predominant aggressors’ of family violence.

3. The use of a legally assisted, facilitative model of mediation

In CFDR, a facilitative, problem-solving model of mediation was practised. This was because the goal of CFDR mediation was acknowledged as being to assist the parties resolve disputes about parenting safely, rather than to have a transformative effect. The design of the model acknowledged that it is not possible – in the 3-4 hours of a mediation session to have a transformative effect on perpetrators of violence. The best way to promote the safety of victims and their children was to support the making of relatively short-term parenting decisions. Transformative changes in a perpetrators violent behaviour may be possible but require the support and expertise of professional men’s behavioural change workers.

4. Special support measures needed to respond to domestic violence in mediation

The CFDR model also featured a number of additional special measures to protect the safety of victims and children. These measures were designed to support the hearing of the parties’ voices, and enable the parties to reach post-separation parenting agreements that upheld the best interests of the children. One such special measure was the acknowledgement of the concept of a ‘predominant aggressor’ in the model

5. Listening to the child’s voice

The involvement of children in CFDR mediation was not part of the general pilot process although the model as it was developed argued for inclusion of a professional children’s worker.  If the child’s voice was included in the process it was only as a result of a decision by the CFDR team of case management professionals, and after careful analysis of the safety implications of this approach. Only appropriately trained and qualified ‘children’s practitioners’ could be asked to participate in CFDR to support the hearing of the child’s voice. These practitioners were required to have extensive clinical experience working with children and family violence.

 

The pilot was evaluated by the highly respected researchers at the Australian Institute of Family Studies under the leadership of Dr Rae Kaspiew. A number of the evaluation findings affirmed the efficacy of the design elements of the model in terms of facilitating the safe and effective practice of family mediation where there is a history of domestic violence. For example, it was found that adequate risk assessment for the parties’ safety and well-being is critical in domestic violence contexts; preparation for the parties’ participation in the process was key; and vulnerable parties have more chance of making their voice heard in mediation in the context of lawyer-assisted models, as long as those lawyers are trained adequately in dispute resolution theory and practice. In short the report said that CFDR was ‘at the cutting edge of family law practice’ because it involved the conscious application of mediation where there had been a history of family violence, in a clinically collaborative multidisciplinary and multi-agency setting.

 

Context: Royal Commission into Family Violence

The work of the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, has shown that an understanding of the nature of family violence and an ability to identify and respond to cases of family violence is central to the work of anyone working in law and dispute resolution in a number of diverse fields.

The Victorian government set up the Royal Commission in 2014 to examine and evaluate strategies, frameworks, policies, programs and services and establish best practice for four areas – the prevention of family violence; early intervention; support for victims of family violence, particularly for women and children; and accountability for perpetrators of family violence. The Royal Commission was also asked to investigate means of ensuring systemic responses to family violence, investigate how government agencies and community organisations can better integrate and coordinate their efforts, and make recommendations on how best to evaluate and measure the success of strategies and programs put in place to stop family violence.

On 30 March 2016, the Victorian Parliament tabled the report of the Royal Commission into Family Violence. The report represents the culmination of 13 months of work by Australia’s first ever Royal Commission into family violence.

The Royal Commission’s report contains 227 recommendations.  The Victorian government has committed to implementing all recommendations in the report, regardless of the cost. The Commission stated that its ‘recommendations are directed at improving the foundations of the current system, seizing opportunities to transform the way that we respond to family violence, and building the structures that will guide and oversee a long-term reform program that deals with all aspects of family violence’ (Summary and Recommendations, p.14).

We focus here on the recommendations which will affect the way in which a range of dispute resolution professionals will have an ongoing role in dealing with the consequences of family violence in our society.

 

Family violence-related debt disputes

Economic abuse is a form of family violence and is recognised as such in a few Australian jurisdictions.

The Royal Commission heard that most women who seek assistance for family violence issues leave their relationship with debt. Through the use of deception or coercion, perpetrators may avoid responsibility for a range of debts and leave their former partners with substantial liabilities (RCFV Report, Volume IV, chapter 21 p.102). This is a form of economic abuse, which is increasingly recognised as a form of family violence across the Australian jurisdictions. A recent RMIT analysis of ABS data showed that nearly 16 per cent of women surveyed had a history of economic abuse.

Women who have family violence-debt often have trouble negotiating the consequences of that debt with service providers. In their report Stepping Stones: Legal Barriers to Economic Equality After Family Violence, Women’s Legal Service Victoria noted that ‘service providers such as energy retailers, telecommunication services and banks have low awareness of the difficulties faced by women experiencing family violence and are unhelpful when interacting with these customers.’ Professor Roslyn Russell has recently shown how staff in bank branches and call centres report dealing with customers who are experiencing, trying to leave, or have left abusive relationships, yet there is limited training for banking staff on family violence.

A major proportion of Australia’s dispute resolution services are offered through industry ombudsman and complaint handling services such as the Victorian Energy and Water Ombudsman and the Commonwealth Financial Services Ombudsman and Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman. These services often use a combination of mediation, negotiation and conciliation to resolve disputes. It is clear these services are dealing with many disputes that arise with service providers as a result of family violence. Because such services are not part of the family violence system they may not have policies or training in place to identify or adequately address financial abuse and family violence.

The Royal Commission recommended that

  • the Victorian Energy and Water Ombudsman and the Commonwealth Financial Services Ombudsman and Telecommunications Ombudsman publicise the availability of their dispute-resolution processes to help victims of family violence resolve disputes (Recommendation 110)
  • comprehensive and ongoing training of customer service staff take place to help them identify customers experiencing family violence (Recommendation 109).

The Royal Commission’s recommendations are designed to develop employees’ capacity to understand, identify and respond to family violence within industry dispute resolution schemes so that victims of family violence can continue to access essential services such as household energy, water, telecommunications and financial services.

 

Negotiating family violence consent orders

Family Violence Intervention Orders (FVIOs) (also known as protection orders and apprehended violence orders in other jurisdictions), are orders made by the courts to protect a person from another family member who is perpetrating family violence.

There are often conditions attached to FVIOs which set out exactly what the perpetrator must do or not do in order to stop committing, and to prevent the future commission of, family violence. In Australia, FVIOs are made by state Magistrates’ courts.

The Royal Commission noted that ‘a high proportion’ of FVIOs are made by consent which means that the parties to the intervention order agree themselves to the FVIO and the conditions attached to the order which the Magistrate merely formalises (RCFV Report, Volume III, Chapter 16, p.134).

There is an incentive for perpetrators to settle orders by consent in the Victorian system because they can be made without the perpetrator admitting to any or all of the family violence allegations set out in the FVIO application.

However, for victims, there is a clear danger inherent in the negotiation process for consent orders, as described by the Commission:

‘the negotiation process involved in arriving at an order by consent may be opaque and variable depending on the situation, the parties and the presence of legal representatives. If there is a history of family violence between the parties, with everything that can entail – including an imbalance of power, fear, vulnerability, and the possibility of manipulation and coercion – it is extremely important that the negotiation process is properly managed. If the parties are not (or not adequately) legally represented, there is no guarantee that this will occur, and the result can be incomplete or inappropriate orders, whether on a primary application, a variation, extension or withdrawal, or a cross-application’ (RCFV Report, Volume III, Chapter 16, p.178).

Mediation is not formally part of the process for negotiating FVIOs in Victoria, although it is in the ACT, the only such jurisdiction in Australia to use mediation formally.

The danger of any negotiation process used to determine the terms of FVIOs is that it is the very acts of family violence that are being discussed and negotiated, and that a poor process may result in a poor order with conditions that fail to protect the victim and her children.

Because so little is known about the process for negotiating consent orders for FVIOs in Victoria, the Royal Commission adopted a cautious approach and recommended that a committee be established within the next three years to investigate how consent-based family violence intervention orders are currently negotiated and to develop a safe, supported negotiation process for victims (Recommendation 77). On this issue, the parallels to family dispute resolution are clear.

Restorative Justice and Family Violence

Restorative justice is a process which was developed from the criminal justice system which enables all parties who have a stake in an offence to come together to discuss the aftermath of the offence and implications for the future. While restorative processes have a criminal provenance, which makes them distinct from DR processes such as mediation and conciliation, the processes share in common a commitment to party empowerment and a sense that creative solutions can be found through ‘talking it out’ which would not be possible in the formal legal system.

The Royal Commission noted that while the justice system plays a fundamental role in protecting victims’ safety and promoting perpetrator accountability, that many women find the reality of the court process to be deeply dissatisfying and even re-traumatising: ‘A strong theme that emerged from consultations held by the Commission was the need for victims to understand the options available to them, and the process involved, and to be empowered to make their own decisions about what steps and outcomes are appropriate’ (RCFV Report, Volume IV, Chapter 22, p.136).

Restorative justice programs have the potential to provide family violence victims with the chance to be heard, to explain to the perpetrator what the impact of the violence has been and to be empowered to discuss future needs, including any reparations. Such a process potentially places great power in the hands of the family violence victim.

However, the same concerns can be raised about the use of restorative justice in family violence cases as there are about the use of family mediation in cases of family violence. The concerns about use of restorative justice in this context include unequal power relationships between victims and perpetrators, concerns about safety, and concerns about the appeal to apology and forgiveness which are part of the cycle of abuse in family violence.

The Commission concluded that restorative justice processes have the potential to assist victims of family violence to recover from the impact of the abuse and to mitigate the limitations of the justice system (RCFV Report, Volume IV, Chapter 22, p.143). The Commission recommended that within two years a pilot program be developed for the delivery of restorative justice options for victims of family violence which would have victims at its centre, incorporate strong safeguards, be based on international best practice, and be delivered by appropriately skilled and qualified facilitators (Recommendation 122).

 

Common elements of diverse family violence dispute resolution contexts?

So, what are the common elements of diverse family violence dispute resolution contexts? It is worth considering commonalities between the processes so that we can understand the nature of the dispute resolution content and process. This will better enable us to understand what elements are needed for dispute resolution processes across these diverse contexts.

We see the common elements of the diverse family violence dispute resolution processes as follows:

  1. Victim is part of dispute resolution process.

Across each of the three contexts, the victim of family violence will usually be part of the dispute resolution process. However, the victim may not be there in person (such as through resolution of disputes through ombudsman services, the dispute may be dealt with on the papers).

2. Perpetrator may or may not be part of dispute resolution process.

While the victims will be part of the process, the perpetrator may not always be there. For example, in debt disputes, the victim may be left with a debt and be unable to pay. The perpetrator may not be available or should not always be asked to explain or confirm his actions. However, in restorative justice conferences, the perpetrator may be there. In this case, safety issues must be paramount.

  1. Family violence may be hard to identify.

We know reporting levels of family violence are low. Matters in dispute may not initially present as a family violence matters. However, family violence may be central to matter, but extent of family violence may be hard to identify.

4. Family violence will affect how the victim will behave.

Victims of family violence are often vulnerable. The violence they have experienced will affect how they will behave in a legal or dispute resolution process.

  1. Family violence is central to the nature of the dispute, the process and the outcome.

 

A “Safe and supported” mediation model

What then are the key elements of a safe and supported mediation process that could be used as the basis of new dispute resolution processes for cases involving family violence across a broad range of contexts? To develop these elements we draw from what we have learned in developing Coordinated Family Dispute Resolution in Australia from 2010.

We propose a “safe and supported” mediation model.

We have chosen to focus on a single dispute resolution process, mediation. Mediation is widely used. It offers flexibility and compromise between party empowerment and professional control of the process. Professional control of a process is central in cases of family violence where the risk of harm is great.

We believe that facilitative mediation is the best type of mediation in cases of family violence. A process like facilitative mediation carries with it the possibility of compromise between party autonomy and mediator control of the process necessary to provide a safe and supported negotiation process in the shadow of family violence. It also focuses on problem solving of the issue at hand, without attempting to remedy the relationship (as in transformative processes) which is arguably inappropriate in cases in family violence.

We believe that victim’s safety must always be the key priority in any dispute resolution process involving family violence. The victim’s safety must not be compromised because of her involvement in a legal process and the outcome of the negotiation must always be measured against the goal of ensuring safety for victims of family violence.

We focus on support because this is a key means of providing victims of family violence with the ability to participate in informal dispute resolution processes.

 

Elements of a “safe and supported” mediation process for matters involving family violence

Drawing from the CFDR model, the following are elements which we propose could be part of mediation processes involving family violence. These elements could apply across the full range of contexts mentioned above. It may be that some elements cannot be used in specific contexts. Nevertheless, dispute resolution processes for cases involving family violence should seek to implement as many of these elements as possible.

  1. That issues of safety and risk are placed at the heart of decision-making.
  2. The philosophy behind the dispute resolution process is that perpetrator accountability is a central objective of any mediation process that seeks to work effectively in contexts where there is a history of family violence.
  3. It is central that the family violence itself is not negotiated.
  4. A range of professionals must work together to achieve a safe process. It is critical that these diverse agencies and professionals share information and communicate effectively with each other.
  5. Specialist risk assessments must be conducted only by qualified and experienced family violence and men’s workers.
  6. A legally assisted, facilitative model of mediation should be employed.
  7. There must be acknowledgement of the concept of a ‘predominant aggressor’ in the dispute resolution process. This is especially important where there are cross-allegations of violence against each party, which increases the risk that tactical allegations of family violence could be used to cover up for legitimate allegations.
  8. Where perpetrators are involved in the dispute resolution process, the minimum expectation for participation in the model (and to receive its benefits such as free legal advice, counselling and other supports) is that perpetrators should have to acknowledge that family violence was an issue for their family, and that a family member believes that family violence is relevant to working out the future arrangements for the children.
  9. There must be training for dispute resolution practitioners in the nature of family violence and family violence identification

We acknowledge this this post presents the first stage in our thinking about the use of dispute resolution processes for the management or resolution of disputes beyond family law and in contexts of family violence.

More specific work needs to be done to create context and organisation-specific models of mediation which acknowledge the existence of family violence in disputes and to adequately address the needs of the parties in light of family violence.

We think that the effort that has been put into working with clients around family violence in family dispute resolution holds important lessons for those in other dispute resolution contexts.

The elements of a “safe and supported” mediation model for matters involving family violence that we propose are an important starting point in a conversation about the safety and needs of victims of family violence in our society.

Email contacts: Becky.Batagol@monash.edu; rfield@bond.edu.au