SSAC team members Dr Kate Seear and Professor Suzanne Fraser were recently invited to present their research findings to a major review of crime compensation laws currently being undertaken by the Victorian Law Reform Commission.
The Commission is conducting a comprehensive review into Victoria’s Victims of Crime Assistance Act, which is the state’s major legislative mechanism for providing compensation to victims of certain kinds of crimes. The Commission is considering whether the Victorian law needs reform, and whether existing processes for compensating victims are sufficient.
Dr Seear and Professor Fraser have previously conducted research into the operation of the Victorian scheme. Their research examined the interplay between victimhood, alcohol and other drug use and ‘addiction’. Among other things, their research found that although the scheme exists to support victims of violent crime, it also makes highly partial moral and political judgements about what kinds of victims are ‘worthy’ of public sympathy, support and compensation.
As Dr Seear and Professor Fraser found, some victims are deemed unworthy of public sympathy and support and are not compensated. The main way this occurs is through a particular provision in the Victorian law that allows the Victorian Tribunal to disqualify victims from obtaining compensation if their ‘character, behaviour or attitude’, past or present, is judged to warrant it. The Act does not give any guidance on how this provision is to be interpreted, and thus in practice it opens the door to highly subjective and value-laden assessments of victims and their conduct. For example, the research found that some victims with a history of illicit drug use and/or ‘addiction’ were considered to be undesirable candidates for compensation. As a result of such assessments, victims of crime are divided into two categories: ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, with the decisions based on highly variable and often inconsistent understandings of the nature and relevance of alcohol and other drug use, and of histories of ‘addiction’.
These and other issues formed the basis of a detailed submission that Dr Seear and Professor Fraser sent to the Commission in advance of their attendance at the Commission consultation. This longer submission, which was also co-signed by Professor David Moore, Associate Professor kylie valentine and Associate Professor Helen Keane, examined a wide range of questions about the provision of compensation to victims. For instance, it examined how typically gendered forms of violence, such as family violence, sexual assault and sexual abuse, were handled by the Tribunal. The authors of the submission expressed concerns that:
- gendered understandings of women’s consumption of alcohol and other drugs or ‘intoxication’ might impact on whether victims were deemed ‘worthy’ of compensation, especially given women’s consumption is typically more heavily scrutinised than men’s, and is more subject to moral and political judgments;
- past legal findings suggest that alcohol or other drug consumption, especially by women, might be claimed to have been a relevant factor in ‘provoking’ or ‘contributing’ to family violence, sexual assault or sexual abuse, based on flawed assumptions about the relationships between alcohol, other drugs and violence, responsibility and blame; and
- existing practices under the Act still allow victims to be cross-examined about their conduct, including their alcohol and other drug consumption, history of illicit drug use, ‘addiction’ and more, in efforts to cast doubt on ‘character’ and credibility and complicate culpability. These processes are frequently gendered and can be profoundly traumatising for victims.
The submission urged comprehensive reforms in relation to all of these issues, in order to better protect and support victims.
Dr Seear and Professor Fraser’s attendance at the Commission coincided with the Commonwealth government’s announcement of a proposed redress scheme for victims of institutional child sexual abuse, in response to recommendations from the Royal Commission into institutional handling of child sexual abuse. Worryingly, the proposed Commonwealth scheme also seeks to exclude certain kinds of victims from redress, including those with a history of drug offences. Dr Seear and Professor Fraser’s views on the proposed scheme can be found in The Conversation.
Dr Seear and Professor Fraser thank the Commission for the opportunity to take part in the review and look forward to the release of the report and recommendations in July 2018. Dr Seear gratefully acknowledges Curtin University’s funding support for some of the initial research on which the submission was based, and the Australian Research Council’s DECRA scheme, which supports her ongoing research in this area.