Promoting healing in the legal system for victims of family violence: the potential of restorative justice

Family violence is on the political, media and public agenda in a way that it has never been before. With the Royal Commission into Family Violence in Victoria tasked with making practical recommendations to the Government to improve responses, we have a unique opportunity to convert this level of attention into real and lasting change.

Our impact through innovation

In this impact report you will read about the many ways in which Women’s Legal Service Victoria (WLSV) innovates to respond to the needs of women experiencing family violence:

  • As part of the multi-agency No More Deaths Victorian election campaign we secured wide-ranging state election commitments from all major political parties on reform of the family violence system.
  • We held our first digital interactive discussion forum in partnership with Deakin Centre for Rural & Regional Law and Justice – on family violence, family law and safety of children.
  • In this year alone, our economic wellbeing project, Stepping Stones, assisted nearly 150 women. Delivering integrated legal and financial counselling services to women who are experiencing financial hardship in the context of family violence, the project reduced clients’ collective debt by over $200,000.
  • We extended our capacity to undertake systemic advocacy and to meet the legal needs of women experiencing family violence through new pro bono partnerships with Gadens, Colin Biggers & Paisley and Holding Redlich.

Innovation in the broader justice system

Innovation is essential in the broader justice system if it is to provide what victims themselves say they want. We have advocated to the Royal Commission and will continue to advocate more widely for the adoption of restorative justice approaches in family violence cases.

What do victims of family violence want?

Victims of family violence say that the elements important to their sense of justice are active participation, being heard, validation, offender accountability and restoration. These findings come from an excellent report by our colleagues at the Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Centre (LCCLC), Will Somebody Listen to me? They are also consistent with feedback to the Royal Commission. Interestingly, only a small number of women told LCCLC that they wanted the offender punished by imprisonment.

Our current mainstream legal response to family violence is incredibly hit and miss at providing these elements of justice and, in many instances, actively inhibits them. We can tweak the current system, we can even make substantial improvements to it, but if we want to create a system that places the needs of victims front and centre, we must be bolder in our reform choices. We need to create a framework for restorative justice in family violence cases.

What we know about restorative justice

Restorative justice refers to processes that seek to repair the harm caused by crime. It places greater emphasis on the role and experience of victims and generally facilitates some form of communication between the victim and perpetrator, in which the victim can describe the harm caused and negotiate for restorative actions.

Restorative justice approaches have been used in Australia since the 1990s with positive impacts relevant to perceptions of fairness, being treated with respect and having a say. These impacts align with the key elements of justice identified by victims of family violence. However, we have almost no evidence about restorative justice being used in family violence cases in Australia. Over the past 10 years, major reports have recommended further research into restorative justice in family violence cases but no substantial and replicable trial has been undertaken.

A framework for restorative justice

We recommend that a draft framework for restorative justice in family violence matters be developed and piloted. The framework should include at least the following safeguards:

  • That the process be victim driven, with the victim being supported to identify concrete goals she wants to achieve through the process
  • That both the victim and the perpetrator are supported through the process by family violence specialists
  • That agreements from the process include strategies for the perpetrator to implement to avoid re-offending, as well as agreements about monitoring and accountability which do not rely on the victim

Piloting the framework

The pilot should be directed towards testing the draft framework for restorative justice to ensure that it:

  • Is safe and effective at reducing re-offending, and treats both victims and perpetrators fairly
  • Meets the expectations of victims: active participation, being heard, validation, offender accountability and restoration
  • Provides for restorative justice approaches that can be replicated around the state: i.e. they are not so resource intensive as to be incapable of broader roll-out.

It is time

We are hopeful and quietly confident that the Royal Commission, and ultimately the Victorian Government, will take the view that the legal system is capable of actively contributing to victims’ healing. A robust framework for restorative justice would be a significant step towards making this a reality.