When epidemic meets pandemic
21 May 2020

When epidemic meets pandemic

Published on 21 May 2020

Domestic violence during COVID-19: How legal practitioners and other frontline workers are adapting and responding

Want to avoid catching coronavirus? “Stay at home” has been the message – with the assumption that home is the safest place for Australians at this time. However, what if your home is not safe? What if at home, you are essentially ‘trapped’?

Domestic violence has always been a highly challenging specialisation for legal practitioners and other frontline responders, including social workers and the police. But the added stressors of our changed society have brought new complications. Which have caused the domestic violence landscape to change radically since March 2020, with frontline workers having to adapt.

Magistrate Bradford-Morgan - specialist domestic violence Magistrate in the Brisbane Magistrates Court, Kath Manby - Accredited Specialist in Family Law and Bernhard Berger - Police Prosecutor share their insights.

A perfect storm for domestic violence

In Australia, our high rate of domestic violence is often described as an epidemic. 

According to White Ribbon, on average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner – with family violence a leading contributor to illness, disability and premature death for women aged 18-44.

The global pandemic has brought with it significant flow on effects, including job loss, financial stress, boredom, social isolation and uncertainty about the future. The causes of domestic violence are manifold, but it’s clear the stressors associated with COVID-19 will add to an already worrying statistic.

The realities of an epidemic clashing with a pandemic have created a perfect storm. New stressors are exacerbating existing violent relationships and proving to be the catalyst for violence among relationships that were once thought to be healthy.

Escalating frequency and increased complexity of cases

Magistrate Bradford-Morgan says, “People are trapped at home in the family unit. If there are issues of domestic violence in the relationship, there is no relief from the constant presence of that partner. 

Police are sensitive to the fact that COVID-19 is putting pressure on everyone. It’s creating huge financial, social and psychological stress – and it has the potential to make domestic violence scenarios much worse”.

In the police sector, Bernhard says his arm of the Queensland Police Service is yet to witness the upswing in cases they were expecting. He believes there will be a more accurate picture on what has been happening once statistics have been compiled and reviewed – and once society returns to ‘normal’. 

A complex area of the law – now with added obstacles

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, working in domestic violence has posed significant challenges to legal professionals. 

Kath says that, “Not only are we dealing with legislation that is in some ways subjective in application, but we are dealing with aggrieved parties who are usually scared and highly emotional.

“Additionally, respondents are often volatile and angry, which puts our offices and lawyers at a safety risk.”

With victims now trapped at home with their perpetrators, legal practitioners are facing a host of new complications.

Magistrate Bradford-Morgan says, “The challenges for solicitors are significant in meeting clients’ needs with social distancing measures. Practice directions have been published so domestic violence applications can be reviewed in court and hearings conducted with no personal appearances”.

Client communications barriers 

Magistrate Bradford-Morgan says, “Obtaining instructions from clients and preparing material for court on domestic violence applications without a face-to-face consultation is difficult.”

Kath says clients previously would be able to visit her office without their partner knowing by timing their meeting around morning school drop-offs. However, COVID-19 restrictions through March and April brought an end to this window of opportunity with schools closing.

Additionally, social distancing restrictions limit in-person client meetings. While video calls have become the norm for most people working from home, this is simply not viable for victims whose perpetrators are likely within ear shot. 

Adapting to the situation: changes frontline responders have been making 

To overcome these barriers, services across the sector have had to adapt how they communicate with domestic violence victims.

Kath says, “Victims are now being trapped with the perpetrators 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Which makes seeking help virtually impossible for some.

“For us, we’ve been doing a lot of communication via Facebook messenger – which isn’t ideal for lawyers. However, if it is the only way I can get information to my clients, that’s what I have to do.

“This can still be stressful for clients, especially if they feel their partner is monitoring their social media activities. So that’s one of the things we always check with them.

“We have a lot of Mothers’ Group Facebook pages in the area where my office is based and people often feel safe sharing within these online communities. There are some checks and measures to make sure the people on these pages are legitimate. But we always direct everything to private messenger once we engage – for our clients’ protection.”

Bernhard says that the Queensland Police Service has also been acutely aware of the increased challenge for domestic violence victims to reach out for help at the moment. To tackle this issue, they have repurposed an existing text-message technology that was initially created for people who are hearing impaired.

To use this service, vulnerable people can visit the Queensland Police Service website and register to contact police about non-urgent matters.

How domestic violence court hearings are progressing

While many criminal hearings have been put on hold due to social distancing restrictions, domestic violence hearings are continuing.   To make these hearings possible, courts have been using PEXIP video conferencing technology. The Chief Magistrate has published Guidelines and PEXIP instructions for legal practitioners on the courts website.

Magistrate Bradford-Morgan says, “The technologies are evolving quickly. Up until this point, police have been appearing on callovers by video link, and practitioners and parties have joined us by phone. PEXIP enables all parties to appear remotely on screen from laptops without the need for a webcam.

Looking forward: what we still don’t know

One of the most disturbing realities of domestic violence during the pandemic is that we are not yet seeing the full impact.

Kath says this is for two reasons. Firstly, victims are trapped with their perpetrator so it is exceedingly difficult for them to reach out for support without risking their safety – with even social media and texting sometimes being problematic. If a victim believes their phone is being monitored, they have few options to seek help.

Secondly, she believes that it will take time for victims to process what has happened. What might have felt like a safe relationship previously may have now changed.

Part of this processing may include making excuses for the perpetrator. This could include justifying the behaviour due to the stress their partner is under, or the fact they’re ‘not normally like this’.

With time and space to reflect, Kath believes more victims will come forward and the reported cases will increase.


A possible ray of light through the storm clouds

While we still don’t know the full extent of the rise in domestic violence in Australia due to COVID-19, there is no denying it will have long lasting impacts.

However, Magistrate Bradford-Morgan is hopeful that some of the technologies that have been developed to overcome social isolation limitations can continue to be used once society returns to normal. She particularly believes that video conferencing will offer tremendous benefits to legal practitioners and their clients.

Video conferencing may also present benefits for the aggrieved – limiting their contact with the perpetrator, and reducing the disruption and distress of attending full days at court which often requiring child care arrangements. Police officers can give evidence and be cross-examined while remaining at their designated stations which enables them to perform other duties.


Free online resources for legal practitioners

At The College of Law, we’re committed to helping practitioners who work in domestic violence with free resources.

For the latest advice and information on what’s happening, please watch our FREE on-demand panel discussions. Both are facilitated by Katherine Manby, family law accredited specialist and Principal at VM Family Law.

Panel discussion 1

Guidance from the Bench and Queensland Police Service, featuring Magistrate Bradford-Morgan, specialist domestic violence Magistrate at the Brisbane Magistrates Court and Bernhard Berger from Queensland Police Service Prosecutions Unit.

Watch the video

Panel discussion

Guidance from Women's Legal Service Queensland and Brisbane Domestic Violence Service (BDVS), featuring Bronwen Lloyd, Specialist Domestic Violence Lawyer and Michaela Foley, Court Support Worker.

Watch the video

Essential Practice Guide to Family and Domestic Violence Workshop

The College is fortunate to have the above panellists teaching our Essential Practice Guide to Family and Domestic Violence Workshop. New workshop dates will be released shortly. Please email Kristy Roodveldt on kroodveldt@collaw.edu.au to learn more.