13 March 2007 By Robert Clark
Hansard: 13 March 2007 ASSEMBLY
Mr CLARK (Box Hill) — This bill makes a limited specific change to the Victims of Crime Assistance Act 1996, namely to implement a series of increases in the amounts of payments that can be made under the act in the form of what is referred to as special financial assistance. The bill does this by replacing the existing table in subsection 8A(5) of the Victims of Crime Assistance Act 1996 with a new table that provides for a higher scale of payments.
The scheme of the 1996 act, as amended by the Labor government in 2000, provides for this category of special financial assistance payments to be made in addition to the far broader and larger amounts of payment that were and are available under the act in respect of matters such as expenses incurred or likely to be incurred for counselling services, for medical expenses, for loss of earnings, loss of or damage to clothing and possible other areas of expenses that have actually been incurred.
The legislation categorises acts of violence into four categories, which are lettered from A through to D, and the crimes that are assigned to each of these categories are as specified in the Victims of Crime Assistance (Special Financial Assistance) Regulations 2000.
The increases that are made by the bill are 33 per cent in respect of the minimum and maximum amounts of payment that are available in respect of category A acts of violence, and 30 per cent increases in respect of categories B, C and D. In numerical terms that means that the new maximum for category A becomes $10 000 compared with $7500 at present, and the scale is reduced progressively so that, for example, with category D acts of violence there is a minimum payment of $130 or the higher prescribed amount applicable in prescribed circumstances, and a maximum amount of $650 or the higher prescribed amount applicable in prescribed circumstances.
As is referred to by the wording of the categories, even though different criminal acts are assigned by the regulations to specific categories of acts of violence, there are provisions whereby a higher category payment level can apply to lower category acts of violence in some circumstances — for example, if the victim is aged under 18 years, is elderly or is impaired as defined in the regulations.
The bill does not alter the other specifications of the regime for special financial assistance as contained in the 1996 act as amended in 2000. So, for example, while the special financial assistance is available to primary victims, it is only available to primary victims of an act of violence if the primary victim experiences or suffers any significant adverse effect as a direct result of an act of violence committed against him or her.
It has been pointed out to me that this means, for example, that a person who is a primary victim in other contexts — because under section 7(2) they are defined as a primary victim because they were trying to arrest someone who they believed on reasonable grounds had committed an act of violence, because they were trying to prevent the commission of an act of violence or because they were trying to aid or rescue someone who they believed on reasonable grounds to be a victim of an act of violence — is unlikely to qualify for this special financial assistance because they may well not fit within the definition of experiencing a significant adverse effect as a direct result of an act of violence committed against that person.
In other words, and to sum it all up, someone who is injured trying to arrest someone, trying to prevent the commission of an offence or trying to rescue someone who they believe has been the victim of an act of violence may miss out on this special financial assistance, and that is an anomaly in the drafting of the existing act which, it has been pointed out to me, is not being addressed by the bill before the house.
In terms of the change that is being made and the context in which it is being made, the provisions being amended by the bill have an extensive history. They have their genesis in the attempt by the Labor Party on coming to office to do something to give effect to the very flamboyant criticisms its members made of the Kennett government when Labor was in opposition. They extensively criticised the regime of compensation and assistance to victims of crime that the Kennett government had put in place based on the allegation that it had failed to provide compensation for pain and suffering, which Labor pledged to restore.
However, that promise was a bit akin to their promise to restore common-law rights under WorkCover. When it came to the actuality they fell far short of their election promises. What they did was introduce this very limited regime of what are called special financial assistance payments.
The history leading up to the amendments in 2000 was covered very extensively in the second-reading debate at that time, and I particularly commend to honourable members and interested members of the public the speeches that were made by the then member for Berwick and by the Leader of The Nationals, both of whom covered the issue very comprehensively and, I also say with respect to them, very well.
If I may paraphrase the comments of the Leader of The Nationals, at that time he said that on the one hand it can be said that the special financial assistance amounts being provided for by this regime were symbolic or nominal, but on the other hand he felt — and I think with good cause — that by many victims they would be simply considered to be insulting, because particularly at the lower levels of the scale you can have someone who is a victim of a wide range of acts of violence in category D receiving a compensation payment ranging between $130 and $650, as it will be after this bill; or someone in category C, which could include death threats, robbery or inflicting serious injuries. Someone in that category will receive a payment ranging between $650 and $1300.
The amendments made by this bill provide for increases which in dollar terms are quite modest. Those modest increases are made by substituting a provision in the principal act, which in turn is a very modest addition to the far broader and more substantial awards to victims which are provided for in other parts of the legislation. These can include, for example, up to $60 000 to a primary victim in respect of the various expenses that I mentioned earlier.
Given that this is what the bill does, it is a bill that the opposition supports on the basis that it provides some small improvement for victims, albeit a small improvement indeed. However, what is striking about this bill is not so much what it does as what it leaves undone in terms of the most important and pressing issues for the victims that the Labor Party has failed to tackle. As usual, it is big on the rhetoric, big on the grand statement and big on spin, but when it comes to the reality it is starkly different. The services that are available to victims have deteriorated badly under the Bracks government.
Page 65 of the government’s justice statement of May 2004 contains many fine phrases.
It talks about the commitment of the Bracks government to give victims access to justice and fair treatment, to restitution, to compensation and to assistance. But when you go on to look at the specific actions that were referred to in the 2004 justice statement, you discover that they were very limited indeed. The first was to establish a new victims support agency that would:
… be responsible for integrating services to victims of crime.
The statement went on to promise that services would be better as a result of this agency. I will come later in my remarks to some of the reality about that.
The second promise that was made in the 2004 statement was that the government would:
… consider developing a victims charter that will clearly state the right of victims of crime …
Last year we had a so-called victims charter enacted in this Parliament, but that document is again like the justice statement itself: it is full of grand phrases but not all that many specific reforms. A number of the reforms that are contained in the victims charter picked up on policy positions that the Liberal Party had been advocating for some time.
If we look at the respective positions of the various parties in relation to support for victims of crime, as I have alluded to, we find that it has been the Liberal Party that has been making the running on this issue and the Labor Party that has been reacting tardily and in a very limited fashion.
Very early on the Liberal Party issued a policy document entitled Putting Victims First, which provided, amongst other things, that courts would be under a duty to consider compensation whether or not an application for compensation had been made by a victim and, where compensation was not ordered, a judge would be required to give reasons. We did that on the basis that the community wanted to see some form of direct compensation going from offenders to victims as a feature of the majority of sentences.
We also committed to set up a victims fund that would provide increased levels of funding to voluntary bodies that supported victims of crime. In addition we pledged to fund new victim liaison officers within the Office of Public Prosecutions, to provide 25 of those positions that would support victims through the court processes and to keep them informed of legal proceedings.
We also established as policy principles that there would be new rights provided for victims, including the right to be informed by the Office of Public Prosecutions when charges are dropped or substantially altered, with the OPP to meet victims to explain the reasons for this in serious cases, and also the right for victims of serious offences such as rape or serious assault to be notified and consulted about release arrangements for offenders.
I should say that the right of victims to have a say about the release arrangements for offenders is something that is now referred to in the victims charter, as is the right that we advocated for victims to be informed by the Office of Public Prosecutions when charges have been dropped or substantially altered.
However, there is an issue that needs attention in relation to victims being consulted on release arrangements for offenders.
I know of at least one case concerning a constituent in my electorate where there is a real fear that the victim could be subject to reprisals from the offender if the victim were to make a submission to the parole authorities opposing release and if the offender, seeking to exercise what they claim is a right to know who is making the case against them, were to gain access to the statement or were to find out that the victim had made a submission opposing release. This is a real dilemma, particularly if the offender is released.
In this particular case the victim was in real fear of what would happen and was caught on the horns of the dilemma. On the one hand the victim could have said nothing, in which case they increased the risk of this person being released, or they could have put in a submission opposing it, which hopefully would have been accepted by the parole authorities. On the other hand, if the submission had not been accepted, it would have created in them a real fear that they would suffer from the released offender.
The Liberal Party has been setting the pace in terms of the need to provide real services and support for victims. It has been doing that in opposition, and it has built on the record that it established when it was in government, when the reforms of 1996 put an emphasis on speed of response and access to services and support, on knowing what was available and on having it available quickly right from the time when a crime occurred.
That is a clear distinction from what is now being experienced, with growing delays and a lack of information in the system. As I said, the Labor Party has been very slow in picking up on changes to improve the situation for victims. Indeed in Labor’s election policy last year it made two commitments. The first was to make the increases that are now reflected in this bill. The second is:
Labor will also ensure that a judge sentencing an offender must consider compensating the victim of the crime as part of the sentencing process, removing the need for victims or the DPP to apply for compensation.
You can see that that is almost a complete lift from the Liberal Party policy tha