Domestic violence and intimate partner violence regularly being treated as less serious than offences against strangers

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Domestic violence and intimate partner violence regularly being treated as less serious than offences against strangers


*Please be warned that the content in this article is graphic and extremely disturbing

In a recent article by Lisa Featherstone and Andy Kaladelfos, it was stated that:

In the New South Wales Supreme Court, Justice David Davies sentenced a 45-year-old man found guilty of murdering his wife to a maximum of 36 years with a minimum non-parole period of 27 years. He had burned her alive in the family home in front of their two children, and had blocked her escape. The crime involved “gratuitous cruelty”, said Justice Davies, adding it was “difficult to imagine the horror” of the victim’s last minutes alive. Her remains were found between a bed and a window blocked by bars.

During sentencing submissions, the Crown argued the case was an example of the worst possible category of murder, and called for a life sentence. Yet, Justice Davies did not hand down the maximum penalty for murder, claiming the prisoner did not require a life sentence as his victim was not “unknown” to him: ‘This was a murder committed, not at large against a person unknown to the offender, by a person with no prior criminal record. I do not mean to suggest thereby that the murder of a spouse or a partner is any less serious than the murder of a stranger. However, it is a matter which is relevant to the issue of community protection.’

It was reported that Justice Davies also said the offender would be “a relatively old man by the time of his release”, and would thus pose a lower risk to the community. The outcome of this case was a conviction for murder, and judicial acknowledgement of the serious violence and cruelty associated the perpetrator’s murder of his wife. But the intimate relationship between the perpetrator and victim was used to characterise the crime as falling short of the worst examples of murder.

According to Featherstone and Kaladelfos these approaches are common in the criminal law’s long-standing response to family violence. They write: ‘examining social and legal attitudes towards family violence shows there is a hierarchy of violence, where gendered assaults on family members are routinely viewed as considerably less serious than assaults on strangers. This hierarchy has pragmatic social and legal implications influencing reporting, policing and prosecution of family violence, with those crimes often remaining hidden in the private sphere of the home.’

‘In sentencing decisions, domestic violence offenders are seen as posing a lower threat to the community at large. This framing of such crimes erases the threats to family members from these offenders as being regarded as “community” risk. As a result, families are seen as not deserving the same level of protection as other citizens. Further, criminological research shows serious family violence perpetrators do have versatile offending histories.’

This article demonstrates that the relative public invisibility of family violence has a long history in law and culture, with domestic violence and intimate partner violence regularly being treated as less serious than offences against strangers. The authors discuss historical practices and attitudes that are embedded in our legal responses today, including legal responses and narratives on familial sexual offences and rape in marriage. Many would agree: ‘It’s time we broke with the past and reframed our hierarchies of violence.’

Read the article here