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Law and Regulation

  • Family Violence: Victorian Laws/regulations

  • Gender Equity: Victoria

  • Discrimination

  • Medication Abortion

From local, to state to federal government’s all government policy, legislation and regulation impacts – positively or negatively – the health and wellbeing of women in our region.

Key changes over the last 12 months for note are:

Family Violence: Victorian Laws/regulations

The Rolling Action Plan 2017 to 2020

The Rolling Action Plan (RAP) 2017 to 2020 is the next step towards implementing all 227 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Family Violence (State of Victoria, 2020). The last 12 months has seen several recommendations implemented.  The most significant of these has been the implementation of Specialist Family Violence Courts.

Specialist family violence courts (SFVCs)

The Royal Commission recommended that SFVCs be established at 14 courts in total. So far funding has been allocated for the first five court locations. Some of the remaining nine courts already have aspects of the specialist family violence model operating, such as specialist family violence staff.

Remote Hearings Trial

A trial offering remote hearings commenced in July 2019 in Geelong allowing victims to give their statement in a different and confidential location away from the court where the judge and perpetrator are located. This is a particularly useful model for our region. The Southern Metropolitan Region (SMR) is comprised of ten municipal councils spread across an expansive area.  The availability of remote hearings will enable greater access and a safer environment for victims to give evidence.  Remote hearings aim to reduce the risk of violence at court, minimise the trauma associated with face-to-face interactions and increase the choice available to victim-survivors as to how they participate in the court process. In the first three months of the trial, three out of four of all victims in self-initiated matters took up the option of a remote hearing (Family Violence Reform Impl. Monitor, 2020).

Online Family violence Intervention Order Online

In 2019, the Heidelberg and Broadmeadows Magistrates’ Courts provided the option of Family Violence Intervention Order (FVIO) online applications for the first time in Victoria. This means that Affected Family Members (AFMs) can now apply for an FVIO online reducing the stress and trauma of going into a court initially.  The Neighbourhood Justice Centre also has an online FVIO application process, which they implemented in 2015.

Other courts across the state are also progressively moving towards online FVIO applications (Magistrate’s Court of Victoria, 2020). This initiative will be very useful for victims in the SMR. It is hoped that courts in Moorabbin and Frankston will be able to provide this capacity as well. As mentioned above, the SMR is a large area covering many councils. The ability to apply for an FVIO online allows for greater autonomy and greater access enabling more victims to seek redress and protection.

Essential Services Commission

Following the Royal Commission into Family Violence, the Essential Services Commission has developed a ‘Better Practice in Responding to Family Violence Guide’, which explores ways that energy and water retailers can provide family violence assistance that is safe and effective. This was guide was released in May 2019 (Essential Services Commission, 2018).  Furthermore, in January 2020, the Energy Retail Code (the code) was updated to strengthen protections for residential and small business customers of energy retailers affected by family violence. These protections form part of our implementation of recommendation 109 of the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence. This recommendation involves amending water and energy codes to ensure support for utility customers who may be facing family violence (Essential Services Commission, 2018).

Funding for the National Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Forum

The Federal Government informed the National Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Forum (NFVPLS) its funding would not be renewed past June 2020. The National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum was formally established in May 2012. It is comprised of thirteen member organisations across Australia who are service providers under the Family Violence Prevention Legal Services (FVPLSs) Program. FVPLSs provide specialist, culturally safe legal services and supports to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander victim/survivors of family violence across Australia.

Since making this announcement, the Federal Government has offered to distribute the funding across each of the 14 FVPLS providers (FVPLS, 2019).

Gender Equity: Victoria

Gender Equality Legislation

Victoria was the first state to introduce a Gender Equality Bill, an important step in closing the gender pay gap, improving gender equality and all levels of the public sector workforce, and reducing workplace sexual harassment. The Bill required public sector organisations, universities and local councils to develop and implement Gender Equality Action Plans (GEAPs) every four years. The Gender Equality Act 2020 was enacted on 25 February 2020.

It will also see monitoring systems established to investigate performance in areas like flexible work, pregnancy, parental leave and superannuation in public organisations. (Source: Premiers Media Centre, 21/2/20).  The Act aims to improve workplace gender equality across the Victorian public sector, universities and local councils. It will also lead to better results for the Victorian community through improved policies, programs and services. The Act applies to certain organisations that have 50 or more employees.

Organisations are required to develop a GEAP every four years. GEAPs will include strategies for improving gender equality in the workplace. Organisations are expected to report publicly every two years on their progress.

In certain circumstances, the Public Sector Gender Equality Commissioner can take steps to ensure defined entities comply with their obligations under the Act (State of Victoria 2020).

Discrimination

The Religious Discrimination Bill 2019 (Federal)

Broadly, the Religious Discrimination Bill prohibits discrimination in certain areas of public life on the ground of religious belief or activity.  Although the bill does not “define protected religious ‘activity’, the explanatory notes confirm it has a broad meaning including religious observance, dress and expression of religious belief” (Karp, 2019). In addition, the bill prohibits both direct discrimination, treating others less favourably based on religion, and indirect discrimination where an apparently neutral condition has the effect of disadvantaging people based on religion.

While the Bill prohibits discrimination based on religion, the bill also protects a religious institution, for example, to discriminate on the grounds of religion where their conduct is “in good faith, [and] may reasonably be regarded as being in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of their religion”.  This section, in particular, has sparked wide ranging criticism as proponents argue that this could, for example, prevent doctors or other professionals from undertaking specific procedures or duties based on religious belief.  This can be seen in regards to abortion access where a G.P. can conscientiously object to providing a service (like abortion) because of religious views that may prohibit this.

A submission from Family Planning Victoria (FPV) highlights the importance of providing family planning services free of discrimination.  Family Planning Victoria explains, “FPV is concerned that aspects of the second exposure draft of the Religious Discrimination Bill 2019 will constrain the effectiveness of sexual and reproductive health services in Victoria; impede our capacity to ensure all people have access to sexual health clinical care and relevant information; and result in groups of Victorians being discriminated against in relation to sexual and reproductive health care access, information, treatment, education and rights.” (Family Planning Victoria, 2020).

Racial and Religious Tolerance Amendment Bill 2019 (The Anti-Vilification Bill) (State)

In 2019, Fiona Patten sought to amend the Racial and Religious Tolerance Amendment Bill.  The amendment was pursued to “attempt to target hate speech and trolling on social media, particularly against women” (Elphick, 2019). The main purpose of this Amendment Bill is to amend the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 to include protections from vilification based on the 5 following attributes— (a) gender; (b) disability; (c) sexual orientation; (d) gender identity; 10 (e) sex characteristics (Parliament of Victoria, 2019).

In light of changes to Federal laws as outlined in the Religious Discrimination Bill (2019), tightening state laws that better protect vilification of vulnerable groups has been seen to be a necessary action by many including MP Fiona Patten.

Medication Abortion

The decriminalisation of abortion throughout Australia is a significant step towards improving access for women throughout Australia.  Nevertheless, it is still the case that access for women in rural and remote areas remain limited as “medical and surgical abortion services remain concentrated in capital cities and major regional centres… so rural women must travel – often at great expense – to seek a medical or surgical abortion (Tomnay, 2019). Even the subsidization of mifepristone and misoprostol in 2013 on the  Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) used in medication abortion, have not necessarily created greater access for women in rural or remote locations.

Several barriers have been identified preventing General Practitioners (GP’s) from offering medication abortion.  While GP’s can access free online training to be able to provide an early medical abortion, costs associated with consultations, lack of support from colleagues or hospitals in the event something goes wrong, as well as biases around abortion often prevent doctors from providing medication abortion (Tomnay, 2019.  Importantly, pharmacists also require training to be able to dispense the medicine required to undertake a medication abortion.

Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces

In 2018, the Australian Human Rights Commission was tasked with a National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces (Inquiry). The Commission’s task was to “review and report on workplace sexual harassment and make recommendations in relation to”:

  • its prevalence, nature and reporting in Australian workplaces;
  • the role of technology;
  • its drivers, including risk factors for particular population groups or in different workplace settings;
  • the current legal framework
  • existing measures to address it and examples of good practice
  • Its impacts on individuals and businesses, including its economic impact (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2020)

The report ‘Respect@Work’ (Australian Human Rights Commission 2020) outlines the Commission’s findings and recommendations. It outlines the high prevalence rates of sexual harassment across many workplaces throughout Australia.