Family Violence: Overview

What is family violence?

Family violence is a serious social issue that affects everyone in a family – children, parents and other members of the extended family.

The Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (the Court) takes family violence very seriously.

The Court is guided by the following principles in responding to family violence concerns:

  • Safety is a right and a priority for all who attend and work at the Court.
  • Family violence affects everyone in a family, including children.
  • Family violence can occur before, during and after separation and it may affect the ability of people to make choices about their family law matter and to take part in court events.
  • The Courts have a particular concern about the immediate and possible longer term adverse impacts on children who experience or witness family violence.
  • Even if children do not directly witness the violence, they are often very aware of it.

The Family Law Act 1975

Section 4AB of the Family Law Act 1975 describes family violence as violent, threatening or other behaviour by a person that coerces or controls a member of the person’s family (the family member), or cause the family member to be fearful.

Examples of behaviours that may constitute family violence include (but are not limited to):

  • assault (including sexual assault or other sexually abusive behaviour)
  • stalking
  • repeated derogatory taunts
  • intentionally damaging or destroying property
  • intentionally causing death or injury to an animal, or
  • unlawfully depriving the family member, or any member of the family member’s family, of his or her liberty

In 2011, the definition of family violence in the Family Law Act was expanded to incorporate notions of coercion and control (which are not always accompanied by physical violence or threats). The new definition of family violence came into effect on 7 June 2012.

A person may commit family violence if they engage in behaviour that constitute coercion and control. Examples of this include:

  • unreasonably denying the family member the financial autonomy that he or she would otherwise have had, or
  • unreasonably withholding financial support needed to meet the reasonable living expenses of the family member, or his or her child, at a time when the family member is entirely or predominantly dependent on the person for financial support, or
  • preventing the family member from making or keeping connections with his or her family, friends or culture.

At the same time the Family Law Act was expanded, the definition of child abuse was amended to include serious psychological harm arising from the child being subjected to or exposed to family violence. For more information, read the definitions in section 4(1) of the Family Law Act

Common forms of family violence

Family violence can take many forms: it can be physical, emotional, psychological or sexual.

Common forms of violence in families can include (but are not limited to):

  • spouse/partner abuse (violence among adult partners and ex-partners)
  • child abuse/neglect (abuse/neglect of children by an adult)
  • parental abuse (violence perpetrated by a child against their parent), and
  • sibling abuse (violence between siblings).

Studies show the impact of living with family violence can cause short or long term physical and emotional trauma to children, young people and adults. Not only does family violence, or the threat of family violence, affect a person’s safety, create fear and disrupt family units, it can also affect a person’s:

  • readiness to take action in a family law matter
  • willingness to come to the Court
  • ability to participate in court events, and/or
  • ability to achieve settlement of their dispute through negotiation.

The Family Law Act 1975 defines subjecting a child to serious psychological harm by exposing them to family violence is abuse. For more information see Children and family violence and abuse.