NSW Parliament is debating a bill that will see victims of violent crime lose both rights and support. Under the Victims’ Rights and Support Bill, introduced by Attorney-General Greg Smith, the cut to benefits for seriously injured victims will be devastating. Maximum payments will drop from $50,000 to $15,000.
Psychological abuse will not be recognised under the new scheme. Domestic violence is no longer a separate category of violence denying the profound impact of psychological trauma and forcing victims to show evidence of assault.
Cruelly, the bill is retrospective. This means victims who have submitted claims prior to this bill may be awarded significantly fewer benefits than expected when they first lodged their claim.
The Inner City Legal Centre (ICLC) helps vulnerable victims of crime access their benefits under the existing Victims Compensation Scheme. ICLC representatives reported that many victims have pending claims that were submitted up to two and a half years ago due to a backlog. While the backlog is not their fault – in fact it is the Government’s – they will be punished for it by significantly reduced benefits.
The bill will only allow financial assistance or recognition payments to victims who make a claim within two years of an incident, or within two years after a child victim’s 18th birthday. In the case of domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault, the bill will only allow recognition payments to victims who make a claim within 10 years of the incident or 10 years after a child victim turns 18.
These limits will deny thousands of victims any compensation for their pain and suffering and in recognition of their traumatic experiences.
In the case of child abuse and sexual assault it is unacceptable that the Government is limiting the period to make a claim. As a society we are just coming to terms with discussing child sex abuse. Decades of abuse that have shattered victims’ and their families’ lives have been left unspoken for so long. It is well known that child sex assault takes a long time to uncover, with experiences difficult to talk about and suppression a mechanism used to cope. A recent Queensland University of Technology study found that almost half of victims wait 20 years or more to tell their story and an additional decade to seek compensation.
We have all heard examples of people in positions of power who are perpetrators of child sex abuse, using their connections and influence to prevent reports of abuse being taken seriously. This delays victims’ ability to speak out about their experiences. The bill under discussion would punish them further by denying them benefits.
Victims are now coming forward to tell their stories as part of the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse so that justice can be done and society can learn how to better protect children. Having victims speak out is something we should encourage.
Jewel Jones who was featured in a Daily Telegraph article on 17 May contacted me directly. Her past experiences of being raped from the age of three in to her teens are horrific. Her pain and suffering – physical, psychological and emotional – are unimaginable. It saddens me that she is one of many victims who will receive nothing if this bill passes.
Limits on claims will also have a detrimental effect on people who suffer abuse and violence within an institution, particularly those with an intellectual disability or a mental illness. Their capacity to report abuse and violence is significantly reduced. Their release may be more than two years after the abuse occurred, precluding many from making a claim.
I think it is worth putting on the record three actual cases in which the Inner City Legal Centre is currently representing victims who will lose substantially if the proposed scheme is made law.
A 35-year old applicant at the age of nine suffered almost 30 incidents of sexual assault in a children’s home by a house-parent. The applicant did not make a report to Police or the Department of Community Services. The victim suffered psychological breakdown and under the existing system would be eligible for $50,000 compensation for Category 3 – Sexual Assault. However under the bill their maximum benefit would be $10,000 if the violence is one of a series of related acts, or $5000 if not. In this case, however, they would receive nothing because the crime was not reported and it occurred more than 10 years ago.
Another applicant who is wheelchair-bound was physically assaulted with a weapon on a public street. The applicant was badly physically and psychologically injured with their wheelchair damaged beyond repair. Under the existing system the applicant would get a $6000 interim payment to repair the wheelchair with a final award of $37,000 for psychological injury and assault. Under the bill they would only receive $5000.
A domestic violence victim who was repeatedly physically assaulted, and subjected to social and financial isolation and violent emotional taunts by their spouse of 10 years, developed major depressive disorder, social anxiety disorder and post traumatic disorder. Their compensation under the existing scheme would be $38,000, but under the new scheme would only be $1500.
These are all real cases which are pending determination. Each victim will have to be told that their expected entitlements will be significantly cut.
The Government claims its proposed exclusion of lawyers from the new system is about providing applicants access to benefits without expensive legal assistance, but this is an oversimplification. Vulnerable people like those who are homeless, live in institutions, come from lower socio-economic backgrounds or are prisoners are often victims of violence and abuse. They need advocates to help them access their rights and benefits and are doing so with the help of community lawyers.
Under the bill benefits will only be accessible to victims who report the crime to police or the Government, excluding the many victims who are fearful of police and prefer to report violence to support services.
We know the high cost to society of abuse and violence. There is an overrepresentation of victims of violence, particularly child abuse, in prisons and institutions and among the welfare dependent. Abuse has economic and social costs.
The Victims Compensation Scheme currently provides victims with some form of redress to help them get back on their feet, a form of recognition for the wrong done to them. It addresses the practical disadvantages victims experience which counselling cannot fix. The importance of this role cannot be underestimated.
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