By Lanie Tindale
Proposed NSW tenancy law reforms allowing domestic violence victims to end their tenancies immediately, has widespread support among politicians and domestic violence specialists.
These changes mean that domestic violence victims will be able to terminate their tenancy without penalty and will prevent them from being blacklisted by landlords because of property damage caused by an abusive partner.
Senior solicitor Kellie McDonald from the Women’s Legal Service NSW supports the amendments.
“Under the current tenancy laws in NSW women escaping violence need a final apprehended violence order (AVO) with an exclusion order to leave without penalty. Additionally, even then they have to provide 14 days notice,” said Ms McDonald.
Susannah O’Reilly from Legal Aid NSW’s Domestic Violence Unit said that it can take “several months from start to finish” for an Apprehended Domestic Violence Order (ADVO) to be obtained.
The reforms will accept a provisional ADVO as evidence of domestic violence, which can take effect immediately if an application is made by police.
Ms O’Reilly said that in NSW, “more than 95 per cent – of applications for apprehended domestic violence orders are made by police on behalf of people who need protection.”
The reforms will accept a certificate of conviction, family law injunction order or a statutory declaration signed by a medical professional, such as a general practitioner, as proof of domestic violence.
Greens spokesperson for tenancy and rental housing, Newtown MP Jenny Leong, said that domestic violence victims “are reluctant” to engage with the criminal justice system, “so it’s important that other respected professionals are given the opportunity to be able to sign a statutory declaration.”
Sydney University academic and domestic violence social worker, Susan Heward-Belle, welcomed this provision. She said: “If a woman’s going to go and speak to any kind of random health professional about domestic violence the most frequent person they go and see is their GP.”
She said that “in the main, medical practitioners don’t actually get a huge amount of … in-depth education about domestic violence.”
She said that social workers and psychologists are “very well placed” to sign a statutory declaration.
Women’s Legal Services NSW’s Kellie McDonald agreed with Ms Heward-Belle that “the list of professionals able to provide evidence of domestic violence through a statutory declaration [should] be broader than GPs as not all victims-survivors feel able to talk to their doctor about domestic violence.”
Ms Heward-Belle said that specialist domestic violence refuge workers have “specialised skills” that make them the best professionals to support domestic violence victims.
Minister Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Pru Goward, said that the measures “will enable tenants to escape domestic violence much faster,” protecting them when they decide to leave their relationship.
Ms Heward-Belle said that the time when they decide to leave a relationship is “a really high-risk period for domestic homicide to occur”, because leaving “reduces the amount of control that the perpetrator has over the victim and their children.”
“It may actually be necessary for that person to go into hiding,” Ms Heward-Belle said.
The reforms also seek to address landlords listing victims on tenancy blacklists, which may be caused by a violent partner who destroys property as a tactic to coerce a partner into staying. This is a form of economic abuse, which is when one partner controls the other by limiting their ability to make or spend money.
Ms Heward-Belle said it may include threats such as: “if you leave me I will make allegations against you to FACS or I’ll get you kicked out of our social housing or I’ll dob you into Centrelink.”
President of the Property Owners Association of NSW, John Gilmovich, said that the proposed reforms will “transfer liability of damage caused by the tenant due to domestic violence to the property owner.”
Mr Gilmovich said that there “is definitely a risk” that the laws will be taken advantage of.
“What private doctor … is going to deny issuing a certificate or doctors note to their patient (the tenant) confirming a discussion about a domestic violence situation at home? And why should they be the decision maker without knowing all the soft or hard facts at hand?” Mr Gilmovich said.
Ms Atchinson said she does not believe the reforms will be taken advantage of as “we haven’t seen any examples of abuse” of measures such as domestic violence leave.
“These kinds of measures are not being used often, and they do require businesses or in this case, property owners to stand up and support victims and survivors, but they are life changing for those who are able to escape domestic violence.”
The reforms have been on the table since 2016. Ms Atchinson said that “as a result [of a two year delay] we are seeing victims and survivors forced to stay in rental properties and not being able to get to safety.”
Ms Leong also said that ending no-grounds evictions would prevent domestic violence victims from “being kicked out of their home for no reason because of the dodgy or greedy landlord.”