Domestic Violence - What Happens if a Victim Presses Charges? What legal help is available?
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Domestic Violence – What Happens If I Press Charges?

Domestic violence – what happens if I press charges?  For a lot of domestic violence victims, the decision to press charges against a violent partner or family member is a complex one, and one that is often not the victims decision to make.  Generally, police decide whether to press charges in domestic violence cases.  It’s estimated as many as one in three women experience some form of domestic violence in their lifetimes. Whilst you might think that means physical violence, the reality is that domestic violence has many faces and takes different forms including sexual assault, physical violence, economic coercion, emotional abuse, and threats which cause someone to fear another person.  Domestic violence isn’t the exclusive domain of heterosexual couples. It can also be a feature of parent-child relationships, can arise between siblings and in the context of same-sex partnerships too.  No matter what form it takes, domestic violence can have devastating and destabilising long-term repercussions for the person on the receiving end. In fact, it’s often attributed as one of the main reasons why people seek assistance to find emergency accommodation. So, what happens when police attend in response to a report of domestic violence and someone wants to ‘press charges’?

How police get involved

You might be in a situation where you’re experiencing domestic violence but, understandably, you’re too scared to call police. If you’re in that situation, there are organisations in every state and territory that can support you to understand your options and decide on your next move. They can also assist you to navigate the court system if need be.

Even if you’re experiencing domestic violence and don’t call the police, a situation might still come to their attention if a friend or neighbour calls them to report it. Other community members, such as a teacher at your child’s school, might also be legally obliged to report any concerns they have.

When police attend

With increasing pressure on police and courts to be more responsive to allegations of domestic violence, a call to the police is now more likely than ever before to result in police attending. This may then result in intervention order proceedings and, potentially, criminal charges against the person accused of domestic violence.

Intervention orders / apprehended violence orders

The first concern that police will have will be for your safety and the safety of any children in the home. They might refer you to a local domestic violence support organisation. Depending on where you live, what has happened and the urgency of the situation, a senior police officer may be able to issue a ‘safety notice’. This might prevent the person from continuing to behave in the same way, or prohibit them from contacting you or communicating with you in any way until the matter gets to court. This will sometimes mean that the person who has been violent or abusive may be obliged to leave the address immediately and stay away until a court considers the matter. It acts as a kind of ‘holding’ order until the case gets to court. It’s a criminal offence to breach a safety notice.

The police might encourage you to make an application for an intervention order. An intervention order (also known in some states as an AVO or apprehended violence order) is a court order that is enforced by the police. It prevents a person from doing specified things, such as continuing to commit domestic violence. The application for an intervention order will go to court before a Magistrate. They will hear the application and make a decision as to whether an intervention order should be made. In some cases, the police will even apply for the order on your behalf, even if you don’t want it. Contravening an intervention order is also a criminal offence.

When the court is considering whether an intervention order ought be made to protect you, you might be asked to give some evidence in court about what happened so that the court can be satisfied that the making of an order is justified. In other words, the court usually has to be satisfied that some form of domestic violence has occurred and will continue to occur unless an order is made. The court will also consider what conditions are needed.

The process of applying for an order is usually a ‘civil’ matter, so the court need only be satisfied of a lower standard of proof compared to the standard of proof ordinarily required in a criminal case. However, if the order is ‘breached’ (i.e. broken), it can result in criminal charges. Serious or repeat breaches of an intervention order often result in the person being remanded into custody. Potentially, the outcome for them can include a jail sentence.

Collecting evidence

If called to a domestic violence incident, the police who attend will take notes about what they observe at the scene and what the parties say when they attend.  Even if they decide not to press charges for domestic violence, police keep a record of these types of attendances so they will know if they have been called to the address previously because of domestic violence and can recognise any patterns.

When the police attend, they might take photographs and collect evidence. If they believe that an offence has been committed, you’ve suffered an injury or your property has been damaged, they may arrest the person immediately and bail them to a court date remand them in custody and present them directly to a court investigate the matter further, which can result in that person being given a summons to come to court to face the charges.
If you have been treated by a GP or at hospital, they might ask for permission to access your medical records relating to that treatment. The police might ask you to help them investigate and might want to see and copy the messages on your phone if you’ve been receiving threatening messages access your phone records if the allegations involve threats you’ve received via text message or calls ask you to be examined by a doctor and to have your injuries documented ask you to make a formal statement detailing what happened. These things form part of the evidence in the police case against the person who has been charged. Police will often be assisted in building their case if you can remember the times, dates and locations of any incidents that have occurred. Making a note of what happened on your phone, in a notebook or diary (but only if it’s safe to do so) is a useful exercise.

The decision to press charges in domestic violence cases

In most cases, the decision as to whether to press charges will be made by the police, taking into account

  • their own policies
  • the seriousness of the allegations
  • the evidence available to support the police case.

They might also take into account your wishes, but you might not be able to stop the case proceeding even if you later decide that you don’t want the charges to go ahead. This is because the police might have formed the view that it’s in the public interest for the case to go ahead.  If it does proceed, the case will normally be handled by a prosecutor who will call evidence in court and a Magistrate will decide whether the offences were committed. If the person is found guilty, the court will impose a punishment and this may result in that person getting a criminal record. Courts are imposing tougher penalties than ever before in domestic violence matters.

If the matter is contested, you may have to go to court and give evidence but, depending on which state or territory you live in, there are normally laws governing the procedure for these types of hearings. Often, arrangements will be made for you to give evidence ‘remotely’ so you won’t have to be in the same room as the person who has been charged with domestic violence-related offences against you. If they do not have a lawyer representing them, they might be prohibited from asking you any questions.

Where you can get legal advice about domestic violence?

You may be entitled to legal information, advice or representation from the legal aid commission in your state or territory . Alternatively, your local community legal centre may also be able to assist you.

If you’re experiencing domestic violence, you should know that the police, courts and domestic violence support agencies are now better funded, trained and resourced to sensitively handle domestic violence matters than they’ve ever been before. This means they’re able to play a much more effective role in helping you understand your options, minimise the impacts of domestic violence on you, and assist you to access the support your need to help you to recover from your experience.

Note that this is a guide only and you should seek legal advice when making the decision to press charges against a violent partner.  This information is current (in the state of Victoria) at the time of publishing however it’s advised that you seek independent legal advice.