MS TIERNEY (Western Victoria—Minister for Training and Skills, Minister for Higher Education) (17:43): This is the most significant reform to financial assistance for victims of crime in over 50 years. I will detail responses to many of the matters that have been raised; however, it is important to note that the government will work with victim-survivors and stakeholders in the development of regulations and guidelines which can address many of the matters that have been raised today.
As with implementing any legislation, there is work that will continue to occur between now and the second half of next year, when the financial assistance scheme becomes operational. The bill also provides for an independent two-year review, in clause 71. The government’s commitment to this reform does not end with the passing of this legislation. We are the first government to appoint a dedicated Minister for Victim Support, who will continue to prioritise this important reform.
The opposition raised questions regarding the bill in the Legislative Assembly. On clause 31, reasonable time for reporting to police was raised. The government has consulted widely on the development of this bill and the financial assistance, and from this we know that trauma-informed practice is important. What is considered a reasonable time to report an act of violence will be different depending on the circumstance for each victim, the nature of the act of violence and the explanation for the delay. For example, what is reasonable for a victim-survivor of a sexual offence may differ markedly from someone who witnessed an act of violence. People with lived experience, the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) and stakeholders have told us that not every victim’s experience is the same. That is why the bill provides the scheme decision-maker with discretion and flexibility to determine what is reasonable time on a case-by-case basis. VCAT has previously found that a significant reporting delay in child sexual abuse cases was not unreasonable. It is not appropriate to specify a set time limit in which the victim must report the act of violence to police, as to do so would remove the flexibility to consider the individual circumstances of the victim and the impact of the act of violence upon them, which is not an approach that is trauma informed.
In respect of clause 41, victim recognition meetings, victim recognition meetings represent an Australian first in responding to the needs of victims by building a forum for the state to meet with victims and acknowledge the act of violence and its impact on them. The use of ‘may’ provides the scheme with the flexibility to hold victim recognition meetings where it is appropriate and allows the scheme to consider victims’ needs. If the scheme decision-maker believes conducting the victim recognition meeting may be more appropriate at a different time, they require the flexibility to decide to decline holding a meeting at this time. This decision must take into account the views of the victim. The needs and the preferences of victims will underpin all decisions made by the scheme under the bill. Every decision made by the scheme, including whether to hold a victim recognition meeting, must be made through the lens of guiding principles at clause 6. At the forefront of these guiding principles is that the needs of victims, including their safety and wellbeing, are of paramount importance. The scheme will publish guidelines providing further information on when the scheme would hold victim recognition meetings. In developing these guidelines we will consult with relevant stakeholders, including victims with lived experience.
In respect to clause 42, right to recover damages, to be clear, successful awards provided to applicants under the bill are paid out of the Consolidated Fund at clause 68 of the bill. This means that the financial assistance scheme as a whole is not capped. There is no limit to the number of applications it can receive or awards it will pay as long as they are within the requirements outlined in the bill. This is the same arrangement as at the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal (VOCAT). The bill provides that financial assistance must be paid to the applicant once the decision has been made. Clause 42 goes to a victim who has received assistance from the scheme being able to choose to assign to the state their right to recover damages or compensation relating to the act of violence from any other person. This is the same as section 51 of the Victims of Crime Assistance Act 1996. The VLRC recommended retaining this offender provision to support scheme sustainability. This allows a victim to assign their right to recover any other damages or compensation by civil proceedings to the state. In other words, if a victim chooses to assign their right, it would enable the state to stand in the shoes of a victim and commence enforcement proceedings for compensation or damages on their behalf. Enforcement proceedings are often complex and lengthy processes which can be retraumatising for victims.
In response to a number of matters that Ms Maxwell has raised—and before I move on to that can I thank her for her continued advocacy for victims of crime—while the government will not be supporting Ms Maxwell’s amendments, it will seek to address many of them through operations, regulations and guidelines and the independent two-year review of the scheme. Clauses 10, 14 and 16 deal with counselling. The amendment to expand counselling provisions in the bill is not supported by the government. However, to provide maximum flexibility and to allow the scheme to evolve with time the bill provides for reasonable counselling sessions, with guidelines to inform what is the reasonable cost or reasonable number of counselling sessions.
Victims have up to 10 years following the original award to apply for additional counselling if required. Victims can use up to their maximum award cap of $50 000 or $60 000 for counselling based on the VLRC finding that most victims are unlikely to exceed 20 counselling sessions and that the average Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal award is $8291. Most victims are highly unlikely to exceed the existing award caps and need access to unlimited funds for counselling. Further improvements to increasing award caps can be explored through the regulations. The government is also committed to exploring how counselling provisions are working in the independent two-year review period.
Clause 54 is about making case management explicit. While the amendment on making case management explicit in the bill is not supported by the government, case managers and other support staff will be part of the financial assistance scheme operation. Decision-makers and deputy decision-makers are included in the bill, as they have legal powers to make decisions regarding the applications made to the scheme. Case managers will be an important part of the scheme, and their roles will be integral to supporting victims; however, this is an operational matter and will be addressed in the scheme’s design.
In respect of clause 48, providing notification to applicants of time limits, while the amendment on providing notification to applicants on time limits is not supported by the government, communication with victims will be considered in operational design and can be reviewed in the independent review. It is important that victims understand their rights, and the bill embeds this with its guiding principles. That is why it is important we consider that notifying a person some nine years after their financial assistance scheme application that a time limit is coming up may trigger and retraumatise the victim, who may be well on the road to recovery and may not wish to be reminded of the crime and the harm that it caused them. The communication between the scheme and the applicants is a matter of operations and something the government is continuing to consult with victim-survivors on. It would be inappropriate to legislate now but could be considered in the two-year independent review.
In respect to clause 74, removing the limit on substantive variations during the transition phase, the amendment proposed, to remove the limit on how many times a substantive variation can be made to a VOCAT award, is not supported by the government. Victims seeking minor variations—that is, a variation that gives a full effect to the original VOCAT award—can make multiple variation applications. While victims seeking a substantive variation may only make one further application, nothing in the bill limits victims from combining multiple requests for assistance in the course of a standard variation. For example, this means a victim could seek additional assistance for both dental and medical costs in their variation application if that is what is required. The scheme will provide assistance to victims to help them understand the substantive variation limits, to ensure victims are given every opportunity to apply for the assistance they need in their one substantive variation application. The victims legal service will also be an available service for eligible victims to receive support in their application.
The government has been working with important stakeholders, including victim-survivors, community and legal organisations that support them, throughout the development of the bill and the financial assistance scheme. Importantly, the government does this formally with the Victims of Crime Consultative Committee and the victim-survivor advisory group, which included powerful and dedicated victim-survivors who have shaped many of the important reforms of this bill that will fundamentally change the lives of victim-survivors. Community legal centres provide vital services to victim-survivors, and the government notes their advocacy on a range of matters in this bill—including the Federation of Community Legal Centres.
The role of community legal centres will continue to be vital to access the justice system with the establishment of Victoria’s first victims legal service but also as we implement this legislation and operationalise the financial assistance scheme. As we turn to this work in creating the guidelines and regulations for the scheme, we note that many of the matters raised by stakeholders relate to the guidelines and regulations. Therefore in continuing our consultative approach to this reform and in the event that this bill is passed, the government will establish an implementation forum with stakeholders to provide input on the regulations and guidelines needed to operationalise these laws. We look forward to continuing to work with community organisations, legal stakeholders and victim-survivors on these very, very important matters.
Motion agreed to.
Read second time.