Domestic violence: mandatory sentencing laws may make victims reluctant to give evidence

Proposed new mandatory sentencing laws may have the unintended consequence of reducing the number of people convicted of domestic assault because witnesses may become more reluctant to provide evidence, women’s services and lawyers have warned.

The president of the NSW Bar Association, Phillip Boulten, said women were often reluctant to take part in domestic violence prosecutions for a range of emotional and economic reasons.

”If people must receive a minimum of two years for domestic violence style assaults, it won’t take long before the victims will become reluctant to complain or will be reluctant to co-operate with the prosecution,” Mr Boulten said.

”If they thought their breadwinner was going to be in prison for two years they would pause before saying anything to anybody about their plight.”

Mr Boulten said police have become more proactive in charging people with domestic violence over the past five to 10 years.

”The prosecution has become more insistent on pressing charges,” he said.

”If mandatory sentencing, which was designed to reduce the level of drunken street violence results in less action being taken against domestic violence offenders, this is another unforeseen consequence of mandatory sentencing.”

The O’Farrell government has introduced mandatory sentences for alcohol-fuelled assault that leads to death and will soon introduce more mandatory sentences for assaults that lead to serious injury.

The executive officer for Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, Karen Willis, said she was generally opposed to mandatory sentencing because it was ”the role of the courts to look at the circumstances of each case and make appropriate decisions”.

”If we keep going down this track there will be no point having a court,” she said.

Ms Willis said that when people are experiencing physical violence it was unlikely they would think about the consequences of a mandatory sentence for the perpetrator. But they may reconsider giving evidence after the event.

”I think at that point in time they are incredibly afraid, they are fearing for their life and they need help to get the violence to stop right now,” she said. ”Where the problem will kick in is if police lay charges and if they are relying on the evidence of the person who experienced the violence, it may be that the witness says I am not going to be a witness or I am not going to come to court.”

Ms Willis said one in three women experience domestic violence and one in five experience sexual assault, but more than 80 per cent of victims don’t report the violence.

”Men are often involved in violence in the public domain. But the violence that women experience is much more likely to be in their home and by their partner and ongoing over a long period.”

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge said the government’s package of mandatory sentencing reforms are focused on alcohol-related violence in public places such as Kings Cross and the CBD.

”No one in the government has given any thought to how it will impact on the far more prevalent violence that is happening in people’s homes,” Mr Shoebridge said.

A spokeswoman for NSW Attorney General Greg Smith declined to address the concerns raised about the future of domestic violence prosecutions.

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