Statistics showing the extent of domestic violence in Australia are confronting. Domestic violence is preventable, yet continues to impact the lives of women and children at epidemic rates. I want my day-to-day work with victims and my involvement in domestic violence law reform and policy work to address this problem and to foster positive change.
For the past twelve years Susan Smith has worked at Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) as the Coordinator of the Sydney Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service (Sydney WDVCAS). This is one of twenty-eight services across NSW, funded by Legal Aid NSW to assist women and children obtain the protection of appropriate domestic violence orders from local courts. It also ensures that women are provided with specialist advice, referrals and legal representation through the Legal Aid-funded Domestic Violence Practitioner Service (at those courts where it operates). Sydney WDVCAS assists approximately 1800 clients annually.
In 2014, Susan and her team were responsible for the city launch site of the ‘Safer Pathway’ element of the NSW Domestic and Family Violence reforms operating in the Waverley local court catchment area. This promotes a whole of government approach to the problem of domestic violence, requiring both government and non-government services to attend Safety Action Meetings, to work collaboratively and formulate safety action plans for victims assessed at ‘serious threat’ of domestic violence. Ideally, Susan would like to see the Safer Pathway program rolled out throughout NSW.
Susan graduated from The University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Arts degree, followed by a Graduate Law (Honors) degree (LLB). She was always interested in access to justice issues and it was through the course ‘Law and Gender’ that she came to understand the role gender can play in women’s access to justice, especially in regard to domestic violence. She was particularly focused on the myths that abound around domestic violence and sexual assault in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.
Today, in addition to her work at Sydney WDVCAS, Susan is also involved in domestic violence law reform and policy work. She is a member of a number of boards and committees, including statutory appointments:
- Member of the Domestic Violence Death Review Team at the NSW Coroner’s Court (statutory appointment)
- Member of the Domestic and Family Violence Council of NSW (statutory appointment)
- Member of the Apprehended Violence Legal Issues Coordinating Committee chaired by the Criminal Law Division at the NSW Department of Justice
By being actively involved in making law reform recommendations to federal and state governments, including recommendations to the Australian and NSW Law Reform Commission Inquiry, ‘Family Violence – A National Legal Response’, the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee’s Inquiry into domestic violence in Australia, the Statutory Review of the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act, the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Domestic Violence Trends and Issues, and the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into the Defence of Provocation, Susan uses her knowledge and practical experience to ensure NSW laws operate more effectively to protect vulnerable women and improve their access to justice.
Looking ahead, Susan would like to see a greater understanding in the Family Court of the dangers faced by women and children affected by domestic violence, and the damage that can result in situations where there is an expectation that contact will continue with the perpetrator of the violence after separation. Susan once heard a woman describe how desperately fearful she felt about sending her small son to spend time with his father in accordance with Family Court orders. The father had been found guilty of an assault on the mother and an Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) was in place. The mother commented, ‘I am an adult, and for the past seven years I have unable to negotiate my own safety with my ex-partner, yet there is an expectation that my four-year-old son will be safe when he spends time with his father.’
In addition, Susan would like to see all courts in NSW install a safe room for domestic violence victims as well as create opportunities for greater collaboration amongst all the local specialist domestic violence agencies that work with police Domestic Violence Liaison Officers (DVLOs) and trained domestic violence prosecutors. Operating together, they can provide better and more focused expert advice, advocacy, referrals and court representation to victims.
Over the past ten years, Susan has seen huge improvements in the arena of law and domestic violence. Her team now works very closely with police DVLOs, prosecutors and the court system in order to obtain safe and suitable outcomes for clients. The Domestic Violence Justice Strategy to be published in July 2015 will further increase this collaboration and continue to improve women’s access to justice.