Strengthening domestic violence response
The first step in eliminating the scourge of domestic violence must be the recognition that it is not only the problem of the individual victim.
It must be seen in a broader context as an issue that affects the entire society, with the need for social and legal activism, so that the appropriate times and avenues are identified for teaching problem-solving.
In many jurisdictions, the framework for addressing domestic violence issues is well structured and victim support opportunities are readily available. In this way, the critical linkage between the legal and the social response is clear, and the victim's need for shelter, counselling and advocacy can be addressed at the same time. In my experience, the importance of those interventions occurring in tandem cannot be overstated, since many victims of domestic violence remain vulnerable because they have no alternative accommodations, find it difficult to function because they are emotionally distraught, and do not seek legal advice because they cannot afford to pay the relevant fees.
It is also true that some victims of violence may be willing and able to get legal advice, but are not certain of the response to expect. For example, the Domestic Violence Act does not clearly define abuse or domestic violence, so many persons believe that the law only provides a remedy if they are physically or sexually abused. Unless the definitions of domestic or family violence are clear, victims will not be certain that domestic violence includes threats, emotional abuse, withholding financial support and verbal abuse.
Among the group of victims who may be able to afford to escape the violence or abuse by relocating to a new home, many of them believe that they must remain in order to protect their legal right to claim an interest in the property. That is simply not so, and this is where the emphasis on the safety and well-being of the victim must be emphasised, together with the fact that the acts of violence that they endure are crimes. There is no legal obligation to endure domestic violence in order to preserve a right to claim an interest in property.
The victims need be assured that they will be treated with dignity and respect when they interface with the court. This means that the physical structures which house the family and resident magistrate's courts that hear domestic violence applications should allow the victim the privacy he or she needs to discuss the deeply personal and often embarrassing details of their experiences. The fact that the courts are usually overcrowded and the staff must first be addressed in a public space through a hole in a glass panel is discouraging for most victims of domestic violence. In fact, the men who are willing to discuss domestic violence issues when they are victims usually avoid relying on the Domestic Violence Act for protection for fear of being ridiculed.
In cases in which the victim makes an urgent application for a protection or occupation order, the order can be granted the same day the application is made. This will only be done if the court is satisfied that any delay to facilitate service on the perpetrator would expose the victim to risk of injury. In other cases, where the victim is not in imminent danger, applications are not heard promptly. The first hearing of the application for a protection order could be as long as six weeks after the date on which the application is filed.
A joint select committee of Parliament has been established to review the Sexual Offences Act to include the review of the Domestic Violence Act. It is hoped that some of the issues raised in this article and several others that affect victims of family violence will be carefully analysed and that appropriate solutions are advanced.