Domestic violence homicide reviews and the case for community models of practice 

Emma Buxton-Namisnyk

Domestic violence against women and girls is a serious issue worldwide. It is estimated that nearly 30% of women globally have been subjected to physical or sexual violence by a partner, or sexual violence by a non-partner. In Australia, approximately one in four Australian women has experienced intimate partner or family violence since the age of 15, and, on average, one woman a week is killed by a current or former intimate partner. Most of these homicides follow a history of domestic violence known to friends, family and/or service responders. 

Domestic violence homicide reviews are a key response to violence against women. Review bodies investigate and examine homicides to recommend improvements to domestic-violence responses, including intervention and prevention efforts. They were first implemented in the United States in the 1990s, but have been established in countries worldwide including most Australian states and territories since the late 2000s.

Australian homicide review bodies adopt a range of different models, but all operate separately to criminal justice processes, all are based within government, and all review state and non-government records to produce their reviews. Some comprise multi-agency teams, some contribute to coronial inquest proceedings and some report publicly either through coronial inquest findings or in stand-alone reports (for the NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team and the Queensland Domestic and Family Violence Death Review and Advisory Board).

Homicide reviews in Australia have also been influential in law and policy reform, with personnel contributing to inquest proceedings in high profile cases and review team data being integral to large-scale reform processes, such as around the criminalisation of coercive control. In Australia, the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022-2032 envisions a 'whole-of-society' response to gendered violence and the current work of domestic violence homicide reviews offers a unique window into this response. Yet, if in coming years Australian homicide review bodies are supported to follow the lead of some of their international equivalents, they can make even greater contributions to Australia's societal response to domestic violence. This can occur through the adoption of more local community-centred processes, expanding Australian homicide review processes beyond simply the review of written information and records.

The US state of Montana is is home to two domestic violence homicide review bodies: the Montana Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission and the Native American Fatality Review Commission. While the Montana commissions and Australian homicide review bodies are underpinned by similar ideologies, their processes for reviewing homicide cases differ considerably. Both jurisdictions draw on state and non-government records to conduct their reviews, but the two commissions in Montana also interview 'family, co-workers, school personnel, friends, shelter staff and all other relevant individuals to learn more about the victim and the perpetrator'. The commissions also travel to the affected community where they conduct their reviews collaboratively with the local community, all participants being bound by strict confidentiality agreements. In their combined 2019 report, the Montana Fatality Review Commissions described that:

“…focusing our collective efforts at the grassroots level expedites the goal of fatality review, which is to introduce and highlight changes that increase victim and community safety and perpetrator accountability." 

While the approach in Montana is not entirely unique compared to the work of other review bodies worldwide, its process differs significantly from Australian teams' emphasis on desktop, or records-based, review. At present, no Australian homicide review bodies conduct interviews, and none travel to affected communities to conduct their reviews. This means that, currently, Australian homicide review processes have reduced opportunities to engage with the 'local' perspective. 

Adopting more community-centred models of domestic violence homicide review practice in Australia, similar to those currently used in Montana, would enhance not only the outputs of Australian review bodies, but would imbue their process with additional benefits. Reviews would gather a greater depth of local information and would hear first-hand from those involved with the case. Further, if community-centred models were adopted in Australia, the review process itself could contribute to community education and healing in the aftermath of a fatality. As with the Montana Native American Fatality Review Commission, a community-based model of domestic violence death review may also be more appropriate for examining cases involving First Nations people. Community-centred models would accordingly be more consistent with a 'whole-of-society' approach to violence prevention and response that current homicide review practices.

Domestic violence continues to be a serious social problem in Australia. Under international human rights law, states have due diligence obligations to prevent, investigate, prosecute, and punish violence against women. While domestic violence homicide reviews in Australia were not established explicitly for this purpose, they make an important contribution to holding the state responsible for violence against women and have unique investigative potential when compared to narrower criminal justice processes.

Greater community involvement in homicide review processes in Australia, carefully incorporating practices that could be modelled off established methods such as those used in Montana, would not only enhance Australia's investigation of fatal cases consistent with the due diligence standard and broader human rights framework, but would open up new opportunities for community learning, education, and healing on a more local level. In the face of persistent and high rates of violence against women and girls in this country, this is one modest policy change that could make a world of difference to the inclusivity and effectiveness of government practice in this space. 

Dr Emma Buxton-Namisnyk is an Associate of the Australian Human Rights Institute and a Lecturer in the School of Law, Society and Criminology, UNSW. She was the inaugural research analyst on the NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team from 2012-2021 and has been invited to observe the work of the Montana Fatality Review Commissions during 2023.