An article titled “Compulsory Reporting of Animal Abuse in Family Court Cases” was published in UC Student on 8 April 2011. The article discussed proposed amendments to the Family Law Act which expand the meaning of “family violence” and focused on how animal abuse may form part of this expanded definition.
Also, it is proposed that the term “family violence” also be expanded to include physical, emotional, psychological and financial abuse in an attempt to control a family member or cause them fear.
Under the amendments, lawyers would have to report their concerns about violence.
On the one hand, physical violence towards the family pet could be seen as a precursor to physical violence against another member of the family. The article states that studies have shown that those that commit violence against an animal are more likely to commit domestic violence.
On another view, the act of physical violence towards the family pet is also in and of itself a form of psychological or emotional violence against those in the family.
One issue which the article identified is that there is no mandatory reporting of suspected cruelty to animals, meaning that there is often a lack of paper trail regarding this. The article called for improvements to the reporting and documentation process of suspected cruelty to animals by veterinarians.
The proposed amendments are interesting as they include less traditional ideas about violence as limited to physical abuse and move more into the realm of perhaps harder to identify psychological, financial abuse and emotional abuse.
The expansion of the meaning of violence will likely mean that there is a higher proportion of families before the Family Court where it could be said that “violence” is occurring. A pessimistic view may be that the majority of cases could be said to have some degree of emotional, psychological or financial abuse if this is understood broadly.
The article makes the point that in the past pets may have been abused because the perpetrator could get away with this abuse as animals cannot talk for themselves. Similarly emotional or psychological violence may have often gone under the radar in many family law proceedings. These new changes are likely to expose many forms of previously unspoken harm.
Of course, such changes to the law do not just result in retrospective action (i.e. reporting of abuse to the court), but arguably prospectively change the behaviour of parties.
The changes may make everyone play a little bit “nicer” as they will try and avoid doing and saying things that could be interpreted as emotional or psychological abuse. If the changes are passed, it will be interesting to see if they truly do influence the way parties to treat each other, to avoid the stick of having their behaviour categorised as “family violence”. Changes may even flow through to the way practitioners interact with each other.