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Taking a stand against family violence must occur in the courts

Last month the Victorian Premier Denis Napthine, Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Ken Lay, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle and AFL chief Andrew Demetriou came together to encourage the Victorian community to ‘take a stand’ against family violence. Part of a family violence campaign, the ‘Take a Stand’ initiative focuses on reducing family violence through increased awareness and by encouraging members of the community to take responsibility for preventing and reporting incidents of family violence.

In urging the community to take a stand against family violence and to end the veil of silence that often surrounds this type of victimisation, it is important that a clear message on the unacceptability of family violence is sent from the highest levels of our criminal justice system. The courts and members of the judiciary can play a key role in denouncing the use of violence within the home and ensuring that a central message is sent to the community that domestic violence will not tolerated and will not be excused by our justice system.

This should not be confused with a call for harsh sentencing penalties for all convicted of a domestic violence offence. Rather it is a call to ensure that the implicit and explicit judgments about family violence that are made in our courts are unanimous in their condemnation of the perpetration of this type of violence in our community.

Between 1 January 2011 and 31 December 2012 the Supreme Court of Victoria sentenced 19 persons for the homicide of an intimate partner, current or estranged. These cases involved the deaths of 7 men and 12 women within the homes they should have felt safe in and at the hands of those they should have been able to trust. These cases represent the most severe examples of domestic violence in our community and remind us that the consequences of failing to report minor incidents of domestic violence, or in looking the other way to avoid becoming involved, can be dire.

In addition to these 19 intimate homicides, over the two-year period a further 9 homicide cases were sentenced involving lethal violence perpetrated upon a family member, other than an intimate partner. This included the death of two uncles, a brother-in-law, a cousin, a child and a stepfather. As commented by Chief Commissioner Ken Lay yesterday family violence is “Victoria’s hidden disgrace”.

The difficulties encountered at all levels of the justice system in cases of fatal domestic violence are illustrated by the October 2011 death of Joy Rowley, a 60-year-old mother of three. In November 2010 Joy started dating her eventual killer, James Martin Mulhall, and a short time later they moved in together. In February 2011 police first attended their shared home after Joy called the police having woken to Mulhall strangling and assaulting her with his fists while she slept. She sustained a dislocated shoulder and bruising to face and neck as a result of the assault. Mulhall was consequently charged for assault and an intervention order was put in place, which disallowed him from being within 200 metres of Joy and/or her residence.

In highlighting the all too frequent ineffectiveness of intervention orders as a control mechanism, by October 2011 it became apparent that Mulhall was again living at least several days a week at Joy’s home. A breach of the intervention order that went unreported. It was later that month that he killed her at her home.

On 14 October 2011, after an afternoon of drinking, Joy and Mulhall returned to her house where they continued to consume alcohol and marijuana. In response to a verbal disagreement, of which the origins remain unknown, Mulhall strangled and smothered Joy to death. Four days later he called the police and confessed to her murder.  

The 2011 death of Joy Rowley highlights several of the problems that have become all too common in Victorian intimate and family homicides. While in many of these cases the persons are known to criminal justice and family service agencies prior the victim’s deaths, a combination of drugs and alcohol, past incidents of violence and the ineffectiveness of intervention orders have all to often proven to be a fatal combination.  

In sentencing Mulhall for murder in October 2012 Justice Betty King of the Victorian Supreme Court sent a very clear message: domestic violence cannot and will not be tolerated. She described his actions upon the woman that he claimed to love as ‘inexplicable’ and commented:

Women are entitled to have domestic relationships with people that do not result in their death simply because their partner loses their temper or has too much to drink … It is inexcusable and the law will do all it can to protect women from violent domestic partners.

This is an extremely important message and one that must continue to be emphasised by members of the judiciary alongside wider initiatives to better prevent family violence in Victoria. If not prevented the risks are all too apparent when considered through the lens of the murder of Joy Rowley and the many other Victorian men and women who have died at the hands of their family members and intimate partners.  


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