The continuing problem of mis-identification for family violence victim-survivors

(An excerpt from Monash University)

The misidentification of family violence victim-survivors as perpetrators – or “predominant aggressors” – has been a topical issue over the past two years.

As various Australian states – New South Wales, South Australia and, most recently, Queensland – have shown support for the criminalisation of coercive control, some advocates have raised concerns about the potential for new laws to be used against victim-survivors by perpetrators.

However, with or without a new coercive control offence, misidentification is something already happening to women across Australia – particularly those who experience disadvantage and marginalisation, such as First Nations women, migrant and refugee women, and women living with disability.

Misidentification can occur in a range of contexts, but is primarily discussed in a legal context, where victim-survivors are misidentified on civil protection orders (called “family violence interventions orders” in Victoria), or face criminal charges, such as assault or property damage.

Police play a key role in misidentification, as it often occurs when responding officers make an incorrect decision as to who needs protection.

This decision may be influenced by:

  • a misinterpretation of a victim-survivor’s use of self-defence
  • discriminatory views about the victim-survivor (for reasons such as race, disability, gender, mental health, etc)
  • police not obtaining necessary interpreters, and/or the perpetrator’s successful efforts to manipulate the police into believing that they are the person who needs protection.

Misidentification can have significant impacts on a victim-survivor’s access to safety, and can negatively impact other areas of the law that they may be engaged in, such as child protection and family law.

Royal commission’s recommendations to address misidentification.

In 2016, the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence handed down 227 recommendations. These called for system-wide reforms to better prevent and respond to family violence.

In its report, the commission acknowledged misidentification as an issue in the family violence legal system, and recommended Victoria Police introduce guidelines to the Victoria Police Code of Practice for the Investigation of Family Violence for correctly identifying predominant aggressors (Recommendation 41).

This recommendation has been marked as implemented by the state government. However, research has found misidentification continues in Victoria.