I am pleased to rise to speak on the Victims of Crime (Financial Assistance Scheme) Bill 2022. This bill provides the foundation for a new scheme to support victims of crime and remove some of the frustration, trauma and limitations of the 25-year old Victims of Crime Assistance Act.
As the Minister for Victim Support said in her second reading speech, victims of crime have high expectations for reform of this scheme. And they should have. The Victorian Law Reform Commission’s review of the Victims of Crime Assistance Act made 100 recommendations for the reform of victim financial assistance. The 612-page report confirmed that the current model is not victim-centred or beneficial in its approach, because it prioritised procedure and evidentiary processes over the recovery needs of victims.
Many of the 100 recommendations are addressed – either fully or partially – in this bill, and I commend the government on its very thorough work to reform the scheme. I also thank Minister Hutchins, her staff and the department providing me with a number of briefings on this bill, and discussions about what is needed to support victims, what is possible now and our aspirations for the future.
I caveat my commendation of this bill with some concerns that we still have around the operation of the new scheme. There are some limited, but very important amendments I will propose in this debate and other questions I hope to ask in the committee stage to give further understanding or assurance about how the scheme will be designed, delivered and reviewed.
We absolutely welcome the shift from a tribunal system to an administrative one. We hope that the requirement within this bill to be expeditious in processing applications will see the end of the constant delays victims endure now.
Despite a recommendation from the VLRC to remove the existing hierarchy of victims and replace it with a single and comprehensive definition, the structure of primary and secondary victims remains in place, though I recognise it is expanded and improved. A primary victim will now include someone who has tried to prevent an act of violence and children will be better recognised as a victim in their own right.
Importantly, the time limits for making application for assistance and variations have been increased and this is appropriate. I note there is some scope to do this further through regulation. The VLRC recommended that victims within the scheme be notified as they are nearing the end of this period so they can make a final application for variation if necessary, and we propose an amendment to include this in this bill.
Victims will be entitled to some legal support in making their application. My colleague Stuart Grimley formally proposed the Victims Legal Service to this government in January 2021. The government saw its value and partly funded the establishment of a service in the 2021-22 budget. Our party view is that this scheme needs to be expanded, particularly for families of deceased victims who need independent legal support to navigate the broader justice system – from police to the Office of Public Prosecutions; understanding court and corrections processes such as adjournments, sentencing, parole; and particularly the plea bargaining process that can often leave families confused or devastated.
The caps on financial assistance have been raised and for related victims, assistance will not come from one singular pool which solves an issue that I have previously put to the government and I am sure was raised by others.
What is of continued concern for our party, having spoken with many victims over many years about their experiences and advocating for change, is that counselling provisions – while better than the former scheme – still remain limited by financial caps.
The Centre for Innovative Justice conducted a review of Victims Services and recognised that the path of recovery is not a straight and continuous line. A guiding principle of this bill states that the needs of victims may vary. Without the right support at the right time, victims recovery can be compromised. I recognise that the scheme needs to be sustainable, but the preventative investment of counselling can avoid other burdens on our health and justice systems down the track.
Victim survivor Nina Funnell tweeted just yesterday that May 25 marks the anniversary of her assault. She said: ‘Assault anniversaries are strange things. They mark both the growth and distance we have achieved, while also plunging us right back in time’. [i]
Michelle Skewes posted this week about her anniversary of the date she was cross examined in the courts to bring her abuser to justice. Michelle gave me permission to use her words in this speech today. She wrote: ‘The feeling of shatterdness that enveloped me that night, is indescribable….. Every person who goes through trying to hold their abuser to account, my hat is off to you. To every person who hasn’t yet, I get it’.
Victims don’t want these anniversaries, these triggers. So when these anniversaries occur, when the triggers present – and it’s different for everyone – if they need support, it should be available.
It was heartbreaking to bring to this parliament an issue experienced by an applicant under the existing system, whose daughter had been murdered in her own bed. The mother was denied access to further counselling because funds, within a capped scheme, had been exhausted. That problem has not been resolved in this bill.
I have suggested amendments for the Legislative Assembly to consider to remove the caps on counselling for this very reason. This is not something a victim will seek to exploit, but needs to be an ongoing provision to help their recovery. I know that if these amendments pass it will require the bill to go back to the Assembly, but it is important to get this right. There are still limitations within the scheme that will protect its viability and this should not wait for the two year review. If the government has concerns about expenditure, there are other places that savings could be sought than limiting the counselling awards for victims of crime.
Stakeholders raised with us a concern that the scheme decision maker must refuse an application if they are satisfied that the act of violence was not reported to police within a reasonable time. Reasonable time is not defined and the government has said that this was deliberate to give more flexibility to decision making. I think this will be an important area of focus when the Act is reviewed to make sure that the scheme is operating as intended in this regard.
Another concern raised by the sector is provision for the scheme decision maker to grant or refuse an application based on the character, behaviour or attitude of a victim at any time. The government has indicated that it is not their intention that character or prior convictions will be considered outside of what may be directly relevant to an application. For example, we know that trauma can lead to problematic drug use and it would be disappointing if a victim was denied further access to support because their behaviour does not fit the mould of a gracious victim. On the other side of that coin, we recognise that there may be occasions where the character or history of an applicant may raise serious concerns about granting support.
Clause 37 of the bill can require an applicant to repay an amount of interim assistance and recover it as a debt if the final application is refused. This is in contrast to the VLRC review recommendation 34. It is my understanding from discussions with the government that in recent times the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal has not forced applicants to repay any interim awards after having their final application refused. I think this should be done in very limited, exceptional circumstances.
Victims will welcome the opportunity to give an oral statement as part of victim recognition meetings. Victims can feel short-changed in court when their victim impact statement is redacted and while this bill doesn’t fix that particular issue, if victim recognition meetings are done in a genuine and compassionate manner they should help the healing process.
The final point I want to make, and to be honest I could talk endlessly on this bill because of its importance to me, and to Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, is about the importance of case management in the operation of the new financial assistance scheme.
The VLRC review recommended that case management be an essential component of the new scheme, and while the government has confirmed this will be part of the scheme’s design, this is not explicit in the bill. The VLRC report noted that case management is a key feature schemes in other jurisdictions including Queensland, the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales and contributes positively to the recovery process and reduce the reliance on legal assistance to more complex matters [ii].
We think that case management should be explicit in this bill to protect the integrity of the scheme, as well as ensure that future governments cannot tinker and remove this key component in the future.
In closing, I’d like to acknowledge the supportive comments from around this chamber in the past for victims of crime, including in response to the last motion I brought for debate.
Ms Shing said about the enduring pain of victims: ‘That in and of itself represents a tragedy that gives rise to our responsibility and our obligation as a Parliament, and as a community more broadly’, and agreed that victims of crime need access to varying levels of support at different stages of their trauma and recovery. [iii]
Dr Bach said that in the meetings and discussions he has had with victims of crime, it was apparent that they understand that ‘the government has no magic wand, no silver bullet, in order to deal with their travails, but nonetheless they want a fair system, a system that is flexible, a system that as far as possible meets their changing needs’.
Ms Patten said that anything we can do to address the system limitations and better meet victims’ needs for assistance is absolutely a good thing.
And Ms Taylor was absolutely correct when she said she could appreciate that it can take many, many years, if not a lifetime, to have any hope of recovery and healing from something that is inherently traumatic.
I could go on and on, but I don’t want to speak for them – this is to acknowledge the broad support for victims of crime in this chamber.
And it is those victims of crime that I acknowledge most of all – all of them, their pain, their courage, their journey – and those who have found it possible in the midst of their own very personal recovery, to share their lived experience and contribute to policy debate and reform.
Stuart Grimley MP and I are both very grateful for the close collaboration you have with us, but we know you also make valuable contributions to committees, such as the recent Legal and Social Issues Committee review of the criminal justice system, VLRC, Victims of Crime Commissioner, advocacy groups and more generally in the public space. Supporting you underpins the work of Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party. I hope this new scheme delivers what is intended, stays true to the principles that are in this bill and delivers the support that is needed for victims to recover.
I commend this Bill to the House.
Read my media statement
[ii] VLRC Review – Victims of Crime Assistance Act 1996 (10.129; 10.133)