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24 Sep 2015

Residential Tenancies (Domestic Violence Protections) Amendment Bill 2015

The Hon. A.L. McLACHLAN ( 16:10 ): I rise to support the second reading of the Residential Tenancies (Domestic Violence Protections) Amendment Bill 2015. This bill amends the Residential Tenancies Act 1995 to provide some practical assistance and to strengthen the level of protection afforded to victims of domestic violence in the tenancy sector.

It is fortuitous, as pointed out by the Hon. Rob Lucas, that in proceeding on this bill in the chamber today the federal Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash, has announced a $100 million women’s safety package aimed at combatting domestic violence. This will, I believe, make a real difference to removing the blight of domestic violence in our community. Like the Hon. Mr Lucas, I acknowledge the considerable efforts of the former prime minister, the Hon. Tony Abbott. Indeed, the announcement today has clearly been the result of much of his work.

Sadly, Australian women are most likely to experience physical and sexual violence in their home and at the hand of a male (current or ex) partner. Recent statistics tell us that on average one woman is killed every week as a result of domestic violence and that one woman is hospitalised every three hours. In this year alone, 63 women have died as a result of domestic violence attacks. There is a clear need to continue to improve our community efforts, both to prevent violence from happening in the first place but also to provide the necessary services for women experiencing domestic violence and for those who are trying to escape it.

The decision to stay or leave an abusive relationship, unfortunately for many women, can be affected by financial factors. This was explored in the paper, ‘Seeking Security: promoting women’s economic wellbeing following domestic violence’, by Rochelle Braaf and Isobelle Meyering in May 2011. As a community, we need to ensure that if and when those impacted reach out we are there, ready and willing, to render assistance. Those in an abusive relationship need to know there is no reason to stay and every reason to escape and pursue a happy and fulfilling life away from violence.

I now turn to the bill before the chamber. Currently, a tenant or landlord can apply to the South Australian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (SACAT) to terminate a residential tenancy based on hardship. When considering these applications, SACAT can consider special circumstances that might result in undue hardship to the tenant or the landlord. A flaw in the current system, however, is that SACAT’s power is limited in cases where the tenant making an application is a co-tenant with a person who is being violent towards them.

Where a co-tenancy agreement exists, SACAT cannot terminate the tenancy unless the other tenant joins the application; indicates no opposition to it; or SACAT is satisfied that the other tenant has abandoned the residential tenancy. Therefore, SACAT cannot terminate a tenancy for persons who would have otherwise met the hardship threshold test if they are a co-tenant and one of these other pre-conditions is not met.

Clearly, this is not practical in situations where domestic violence is the reason a co‑tenant makes an application in the first place. The bill permits the termination of a residential tenancy or rooming house agreement where the SACAT is satisfied that domestic abuse has occurred or there is an intervention order in force against a person residing at the premises.

The bill also makes amendments giving SACAT the power to find that one or more but not all co-tenants are responsible to make payment to the landlord either by way of compensation or out of the bond for property damage. Although SACAT currently has the power to make an order for compensation, it does not have the power to order that only one tenant in a co-tenancy is liable to make the payment. This means that in situations of domestic violence the victim is required to pay for any property damage that is caused by their co-tenant who was the perpetrator of the damage. Worse still, it can also lead to the victim being placed on a residential tenancy database, linking them with the property damage not of their making.

Under the amendments, SACAT can direct the bond be paid in instalments as it thinks fit, considering which co-tenants were liable, which co-tenants paid the bond and in what proportions. SACAT can also prohibit a tenant’s personal information being listed on the residential tenancy databases in certain circumstances relating to domestic violence. These amendments attempt to balance the landlord’s right to compensation with the victim’s interest in the bond moneys.

Under the amendments, a tenant can apply for a restraining order against a co-tenant when there is a risk that they or a person permitted on the premises by the tenant may cause serious property damage or personal injury. These restraining orders prohibit them from engaging in certain types of conduct. Without these amendments, it is not clear if a co-tenant had the standing to make such applications against their co-tenant.

The bill also adopts existing definitions under the Intervention Orders Act recognising that domestic violence can include a wide variety of behaviour between family members. This bill aims to complement the intervention order regime by ensuring that victims do not incur further expenses or hardship associated with relocating or are able to remain in their homes when it is safe to do so.

We must do all that we possibly can to ensure that those victims who find the courage and strength to end an abusive relationship have the tools to equip themselves to find a safe location and with as little financial stress as possible. The recent launch of the Zahra Abrahimzadeh Foundation, which will offer grants to women to help cover the financial costs of escaping their violent partners and rebuilding their lives, is a wonderful example of how the community can become involved and help provide practical assistance to the countless victims within our community.

Recently, I was honoured to become a White Ribbon ambassador, and I am encouraged to see that many of my colleagues and other members in this place are also ambassadors. I have also been encouraged to see the White Ribbon campaign gaining publicity and increasing awareness in the community of this widespread affliction. While as a community I believe we have made considerable progress, there is much more to be done. I look forward to the committee stage and the government’s response to the matters raised by the Hon. Mr Lucas.

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