Victims support scheme fails victims

Issue 
Katrina Keshishian has campaigned against the changes to compensation laws.

In 2013 the NSW Government took an axe to the existing victims of crime compensation scheme, introducing legislation that targeted survivors of sexual and domestic abuse.

The government claimed this scheme would result in a faster and easier process for applicants, but this has not been the case, and the main changes make it more difficult, if not impossible, for many applicants.

The legislation slashed the compensation applicants are eligible to apply for by up to 80%; restricted eligibility to those who had reported the abuse to police or another government agency; put strict time limits on making applications; and increased the power of the tribunal to seek restitution from perpetrators.

COMPENSATION GROSSLY INADEQUATE

The amount of compensation — now called a “recognition payment” — is grossly inadequate, and shows that the government does not really recognise the ongoing injuries associated with sexual and domestic abuse. Linking compensation above this minimum “recognition payment” to direct loss of income fails to take into account the indirect, but very real ways that abuse survivors are financially disadvantaged.

Payments such as $1500 to people who have suffered domestic abuse, or $15,000 for people who have been gang raped are insulting and fall far short of the amount needed to start to rebuild a life.

The changes to the victim’s compensation scheme primarily affected victims of sexual and domestic violence. Despite overwhelming evidence of the often long-lasting injury and trauma that can result from these forms of abuse, there is a persistent social resistance to taking them as seriously as other abuses, especially when the perpetrator is known to the victim. This attitude is evident in the 2013 changes.

Requiring applicants to have reported the abuse to the police or other government agency is problematic in itself given the documented barriers victims face. But it disadvantages some applicants more than others.

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology Aboriginal and culturally and linguistically diverse victims of domestic and sexual violence are less likely to report the crime to a government agency.

Given the history and ongoing racism of the police force and other agencies it is unsurprising that the rates of reporting are so low, and it is particularly insidious for the government to tie compensation to the reporting of the crime, rather than take steps to make reporting a safer option.

One of the reasons commonly given is that people prefer to seek assistance from someone with the same cultural background and this is often not possible via a government agency.

Rather than trying to force people who have very real reasons to not report abuse into reporting it to government agencies, the government needs to look at what it can do to make reporting safer and less likely to result in revictimisation.

Under the old scheme the tribunal had discretionary powers to allow applications that fell outside the time limitations. Under the new scheme the tribunal has no such powers and applications must be lodged within 10 years of the crime, or, if the applicant was under 18 at the time, within 10 years of their turning 18.

The only time the 10-year limitation does not apply is for childhood victims of sexual assault, where no limitation applies. This was only made in concession to minor parties to pass the legislation.

We live in a society that silences victims of abuse; tells them it wasn’t really abuse; it was their fault; they shouldn’t talk about it; and that often is unsympathetic when people do speak out.

With so many justifiable reasons why many people wait more than 10 years to apply for victims’ compensation, the government should not enforce any time limitations, especially in cases of domestic and sexual abuse.

RISK OF RETRIBUTION

Seeking restitution from perpetrators puts people in a position where they are at risk of retribution and has resulted in victims of domestic and sexual abuse opting to not go ahead with applications for compensation or recognition payments.

In implementing this the government has gone against the recommendations in the Pricewaterhouse report that victims of domestic and sexual violence should be able to opt out of the tribunal seeking restitution from offenders, stating that “While the principle of restitution is important, the safety of the primary, secondary and family victims should take precedence”.

Before 2013 private solicitors who assisted with victims’ compensation claims were entitled to a fee from the trust. Under the new scheme there is no payment for solicitors, and instead claimants are given a case worker who works for Victims Services.

Community legal centres pointed out the potential conflict of interest that arises from an employee of Victims Services representing someone making a claim.

The application process can be confusing and legalistic, especially in cases where long-term abuse occurred, and not having legal representation could be a big disadvantage. There needs to be access to independent legal assistance at all stages of the application process.

Victims groups and organisations that assist victims of sexual and domestic violence, including legal centres, charities, domestic violence organisations and other groups, made submissions to the parliament when the bill was introduced, outlining the dangers of the changes and how it let victims down.

More recently a strong campaign against the changes was led by Katrina Keshishian. She had been gang raped in 2006 and her compensation claim was caught up in the changes. When she applied she was entitled to up to $50,000, but after the changes the maximum she could receive was reduced to $15,000.

Keshishian campaigned to change this, starting a petition that gained 130,000 signatures and put pressure on the NSW government to reverse the 2013 changes.

GOVERNMENT ADMITS MISTAKE

On March 15, the government announced it had made a grave mistake in switching claims to the new scheme, and that people who had made claims before the 2013 changes would be able to reapply under the old scheme.

This is being heralded as a win for survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, and while it is a win, and one where the tireless work of those who campaigned should be acknowledged, it is not a win for all victims impacted by the changes.

More than 24,000 people who had claims that were being processed when the changes were made, are now eligible to reapply for the amount of compensation they were first told they would be able to claim. This is an important achievement.

Some people were waiting years for their claims to be processed, only to be told that they would only receive a small fraction of what they had been expecting.

Before the government admitted that retrospective changes to claims that had already been lodged were a mistake the issue threatened to become an election issue.

By admitting they were wrong in this one aspect, and giving 24,000 people the opportunity to claim the compensation they deserve, the government was able to look like they are doing the right thing while still short changing thousands of people who have been victimised and traumatised — including victims of future crimes.

This win needs to be the first step in a fight for fair and just compensation for victims of sexual and domestic abuse.

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