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Government leaves family waiting

Question without notice

Tania MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (12:04):

My question is to the Attorney-General regarding the government’s commitment on multiple occasions to legislate the offence of non-fatal strangulation.

In 2019 the government promised to legislate this offence following the brutal murder of Joy Rowley. On February 22, this year, you reaffirmed that commitment to bringing legislation this year and noted that consultations were closing in on the final stages. At that time you suggested you would have an update for this chamber in the not-too-distant future.

One hundred and twenty-odd days is starting to feel a little distant for Ms Rowley’s family, who still acutely mourn the death of their mother. So, with only a small number of sitting weeks left, I ask if you have an update that you can provide not only to this chamber but most importantly to the family.

Jaclyn SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (12:04):

I thank Ms Maxwell for her question and her ongoing interest in these important matters. As you would appreciate, there is a lot of reform that my office and the department are responsible for, and progressing non-fatal strangulation is certainly still on the agenda and still being progressed. I do not have a specific date for you, but I am absolutely more than happy to come and see you and give you an update in detail about the progress of the development of that legislation.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (12:05):

Thank you, Attorney. I appreciate that. Attorney, on February 22, 2022, I brought to your attention the family being given the choice of a verbal or a written update. They requested information in writing, which is still yet to be received.

While the family understands that this is complex, they are still waiting and my staff have followed up numerous times since without success. Given this is proving frustrating for everyone, my question is: will you agree to meet with the family and give them a personal update and assurance of the government’s commitment to bringing legislation as promised for this offence?

Ms SYMES (12:06):

Ms Maxwell, I am more than happy to meet with the family. I certainly make myself available to particularly victims of crime who have issues within the justice system that they want to bring to my attention, particularly in relation to reform. It is a practice that I will continue to be committed to, so I am more than happy to meet with the family, and I will make those arrangements directly through the department with them.

Strengthening family violence victim protections

Media statement

February 24, 2022

Tania Maxwell MP has welcomed this week’s commitment by Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes to strengthen protections for victims in violent relationships by legislating non-fatal strangulation as a criminal offence in Victoria.

The Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party Member for Northern Victoria said the children of the late Joy Rowley – three years after the government promised to make the change – would be relieved.

State Coroner Sara Hinchey in 2018 found Ms Rowley was strangled and then suffocated by James Mulhall in her Rye home in October 2011.

Mulhall, who had earlier been violent towards her and had breached an intervention order, pleaded guilty to her murder and was sentenced to 19 years in prison.

“Non-fatal strangulation is often carried out in family violence incidents,” Ms Maxwell said.

“A University of Melbourne Law School study published last year reported that it’s now recognised as extremely dangerous.

“As a form of physical abuse, the study found that it’s ‘overwhelmingly perpetrated’ by men against women, the injuries inflicted are often invisible, and the risk of future harm and death is high where family violence occurs.

“But a charge of assault – which the study reported as most common where an offence of non-fatal strangulation is not on the statute books – does not reflect the seriousness of this level of violence.”

Ms Maxwell told Parliament on Tuesday that Ms Rowley’s children had to fight for an inquest into their mother’s death.

“Judge Hinchey said in her findings that a stand-alone offence for strangulation, suffocation or choking in Victoria may significantly help to recognise the serious risk for victims and remove the need to prove particular intent or harm,” she said.

“The offence is in place in other states.

“I recently met with Ms Rowley’s children, who still suffer enormously from the loss of their mother.

“They have been disappointed and frustrated that despite a promise from the government to legislate this offence they are still waiting.”

Former police minister Lisa Neville made the undertaking in July 2019.

“In his evidence at Ms Rowley’s inquest, Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Dean McWhirter told the coroner about one-third of family violence homicides involved previously known family violence,” Ms Maxwell said outside Parliament.

“Judge Ian Gray, the state coroner at the time the court was notified of Ms Rowley’s death, asked the Coroner’s Prevention Unit to examine the circumstances of her death as part of the Systemic Review of Family Violence Deaths.

“Judge Hinchey noted failure by frontline Victoria Police officers to implement family violence-related policies at the time of incidents involving Ms Rowley, and at the time of her death.

“But she also commended Victoria Police Family Violence Command’s efforts to identify a gap in the law where attempted strangulation is hard to prove and is often treated as assault.

“She said a change in the law would better protect victims of violence.”

Ms Symes said the government planned to enact the change this year.

“We do know that non-fatal strangulation is a serious and insidious crime,” she told Parliament.

“It is often difficult to detect, but what we do know is that it is very often, particularly in family violence situations, a precursor to murder, which is why we have committed to act.

“But you need to get the laws right – you need to make sure that police can with confidence bring a charge for such an offence.

“…It is something I am committed to. It will be a stand-alone non-fatal strangulation offence. Consultations are closing into the final stages, and I suspect I will have an update for this chamber in the not-too-distant future.”

Ms Symes also committed to provide updated information to the Rowley family.

Image: The Age – Gabriele Charotte

Reform promised for Joy Rowley’s family

Question without notice

February 22, 2022

Tania MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (11:58):

My question is to the Attorney-General, and it relates to the commitment of the government in 2019 to legislate non-fatal strangulation as a standalone offence.

In 2011 Joy Rowley was murdered by strangulation and suffocation. After the family fought for an inquest into her death, the coroner said in her findings that a standalone offence for strangulation, suffocation or choking in Victoria may significantly help to recognise the serious risk for victims and remove the need to prove particular intent or harm. The offence is in place in other jurisdictions.

I recently met with the family of Ms Rowley, who still suffer enormously from the loss of their mother. They are disappointed and frustrated that despite a promise from the government in 2019 to legislate this offence they are still waiting. Minister, can you update this house on the status of this legislation and if the government will commit to passing the legislation in this term of Parliament?

Hon. Jaclyn SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (11:59):

I thank Ms Maxwell for her question, and indeed my condolences to Joy Rowley’s family.

It is an important issue. It is really complex, though. It is something that I continue to pursue. We are having detailed consultations with stakeholders at the moment. I do intend to bring legislation this year.

We do know that non-fatal strangulation is a serious and insidious crime. It is often difficult to detect, but what we do know is that it is very often, particularly in family violence situations, a precursor to murder, which is why we have committed to act.

But you need to get the laws right; you need to make sure that police can with confidence bring a charge for such an offence. So, Ms Maxwell, it is something I am committed to. It will be a standalone non-fatal strangulation offence. Consultations are closing into the final stages, and I suspect I will have an update for this chamber in the not-too-distant future.

The PRESIDENT:

Members, before I call Ms Maxwell on a supplementary, whether you are asking questions or responding to questions or making a ministers statements, please watch the clock.

Ms MAXWELL (12:01):

The last contact the family had from the department on your behalf was the promise of a verbal update on 11 January 2022 or a reply by letter addressing the issues discussed in the 2020 updates. The family requested the response be in writing. They have had no response, so I am wondering why they are still waiting and when this letter will be sent.

Ms SYMES (12:01):

Thank you, Ms Maxwell. I was not aware of that commitment, but I can give you a commitment to indeed give an update to the family.

I guess it is through the stakeholder engagement that the complexity has arisen, and so in relation to how we want to land on this offence and what it will look like, it has involved a lot of intense consideration by both me and the department, and so guess I would prefer to go back to the family when that is more settled, which is very close, as opposed to going to the family with all of the issues.

Look, the thing we want to avoid is unintended consequences in creating a new law. It is certainly something I am committed to, but I do not want to get it wrong. We have had ongoing conversations with police, prosecutors and victims, and I commit to following up that matter and making sure the family get a timely update.