As personal injury lawyers it is not just car accidents and workplace injury claims we pursue on behalf of our clients. There is the under-appreciated role of personal injury law in the fight against domestic and family violence.

As the Queensland Government continues to consult with stakeholders and the community at large about how to address the issue of domestic and family violence, the role of the civil law in this space can sometimes be overlooked.

Civil claims for compensation arising out of criminal acts are often associated with the the US legal system and not the Australian system. Victims of domestic and family violence in Australia have the right to sue their abusers for compensation.[1]

Domestic and family violence can rob survivors of their autonomy. Unfortunately, the criminal law system does little to restore this. A key difference in the standing of the survivor in a civil claim is that they are a party to proceedings, meaning they are in control of the process. Their status as a witness in criminal proceedings gives them little voice in how the case is run and no say in decisions that will  significantly impact them; eg. decisions on accepting guilty pleas. One of the most important steps for survivors is their ability to restore their autonomy and sense of control.

The financial impact of domestic and family violence cannot be overstated. Victims of crime compensation is an important part of the matrix of the criminal justice system. However, when measured against what this violence costs its victims, it cannot but appear wanting. Whilst a claim against a perpetrator will only be viable where they have assets that can support an award of damages, it will deliver other benefits. Firstly, it lays the consequences for the abuse directly at the feet of the abuser, delivering a stark and telling instance of accountability. Secondly, it offers a dispassionate accounting of the financial cost to victims. While the quantum of damages, always depends on the facts in any given case, it is critical that we continue to recognise and demand recompense for victims of this abuse.

The civil burden of proof, the balance of probabilities, has an important role in the domestic and family violence space. Too often, as with sexual assault cases, there are few witnesses, far too much scope for gendered assumptions about behaviour and victim-blaming. Beyond reasonable doubt is a necessary but onerous threshold to enforce criminal accountability upon perpetrators. The civil jurisdiction offers  ways to subvert the rabbit holes that prosecutions can traverse and an alternative space for survivors to be heard, believed and compensated.

There is no avoiding the fact that bringing a claim can be risky, upsetting, exhausting and bewildering for claimants. This is so in claims when insurers make dispassionate commercial decisions about the respective risks and merits of any particular claim. Consider then the emotional toll of bringing a claim against the uninsured ex-partner who abused you. A difficult decision indeed.

As we as a society continue to grapple with how to manage the unrelenting tide of domestic and family abuse, it is important to harness all of the tools in our legal toolkits. Personal injury law has a critical role to play in holding perpetrators to account and restoring victims as close as possible to the position they would have been, but for the abuse.

[1] Subject to limitation periods, among other issues. You should speak to a solicitor about any potential claim