Victims Support and Rehabilitation Amendment Bill
The Hon. MICHAEL COSTA (Treasurer, Minister for Infrastructure, and Minister for the Hunter) [9.23 p.m.], on behalf of the Hon. John Della Bosca: I move:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I seek leave to incorporate the second reading speech in Hansard.
This Government has a proud record of supporting the needs of victims of crime. We have listened to victims and their support groups. We are responding by making some important changes in this Bill that will benefit victims of crime in NSW.
The main purpose of this Bill is to implement the key recommendations from the report of the statutory review of the Victims Support and Rehabilitation Act 1996 and the Victims Rights Act 1996. There will also be a change to the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999 concerning victim impact statements.
This Bill implements the majority of the report's recommendations. A small number of these recommendations have been changed or altered to take into account some of the concerns raised by stakeholders. It also contains a number of new reforms. The Victims Advisory Board and victims support groups have provided invaluable assistance in developing the changes contained in this Bill.
Victims Assistance Scheme
The report of the statutory review recommended that a scheme be established to allow victims of crime who are not eligible for statutory compensation to elect to be reimbursed for certain actual expenses up to a maximum amount.
Consultation with victims' groups has confirmed the need for such a scheme.
The Bill extends compensation to a new category of victims, who will be eligible to be reimbursed for certain prescribed expenses.
It will provide some financial relief for victims who currently fall under the threshold for statutory compensation for compensable injuries.
It will also allow victims to be reimbursed at an earlier stage for some of their expenses while their general statutory compensation claim (under section 14 of the Act) is determined.
The expansion of the scheme further emphasises the rehabilitation role of the Act. It is an important and practical way to assist victims to re-establish their lives in the aftermath of crime.
Eligible victims will be able to claim for actual expenses incurred as a result of an act of violence. These expenses must total at least $200 and cannot exceed $1,500.
The kinds of expenses that are recoverable will be set out in the Victims Support and Rehabilitation Regulation. So that Members can see what types of expenses will be covered by the scheme, the Regulation has been prepared and is set out in Schedule 4 of the Bill. The regulation will commence when the other provisions relating to the scheme commence.
The expenses to be covered by the expanded scheme include the provision of
• an ambulance service,
• dental services,
• domestic assistance during the victim's recovery from the act of violence,
• cleaning of property (other than clothing or other wearable items),
• security measures; and
• the replacement of prescription glasses or prescription contact lenses.
The expanded scheme also contemplates that a victim may be eligible for compensation for prescribed expenses, but then may later wish to lodge a claim for general statutory compensation. This could be in circumstances where, for example, further medical evidence comes to light about a permanent disability that has resulted from the act of violence.
To prevent double dipping, the amount of any award for prescribed expenses will be deducted from a later successful award for general statutory compensation.
A person must lodge their application for prescribed expenses within two years of the act of violence. No leave can be given to accept a late application.
The process for applying for prescribed expenses will be simple. It is anticipated that once applications are received, they will be dealt with speedily. As a result no legal costs or other disbursements will be payable in relation to an application for prescribed expenses.
Where a person lodges an application for general statutory compensation, but is awarded prescribed expenses only, an assessor will have a discretion to award costs in special circumstances. This proposed section is designed to discourage applicants from lodging applications for general statutory compensation where there is a little prospect of receiving it. In the case of genuine applications for general statutory compensation, which are ultimately dismissed, the current law with respect to costs will continue to apply.
A victim will be able to have the amount of the prescribed expenses compensation award reviewed by the Director of Victim Services. Otherwise the usual review and appeal mechanisms applying to general compensation will apply.
Domestic violence and sexual assault victims
The Government is strongly committed to supporting victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. The Government has recently introduced a number of changes to the criminal law designed to protect women and children and send a message to perpetrators that their behaviour is totally unacceptable.
The Bill before the House contains further changes which will benefit victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Previously a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault, in the absence of physical injuries, had to prove a psychological or psychiatric disorder before they were eligible to receive compensation or counselling under the Act.
The amendments in this Bill will improve access to compensation and counselling to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault who manifest psychological or psychiatric harm. In line with the common law, the requisite "harm" need not be permanent in nature, but must be more than merely transient or trifling.
This change recognises the unique nature of sexual assault and domestic violence offences and demonstrates the Government's commitment to supporting victims of these particularly traumatic crimes.
It also means that compensation assessors will generally be able to draw on existing documents relevant to the compensation claim, such as medical records, court records, counselling records and school reports to determine that there is an injury. This will remove the need for a victim to undergo additional psychiatric or psychological examinations. The process of applying for compensation will now be less traumatic for victims of sexual assault, including children.
The Bill also amends section 30 of the Act so that a compensation assessor will be able to consider other reports which the victim made to health professionals and other relevant agencies about the crime, not only reports they may have made to police. An assessor, when considering whether victims of sexual assault or domestic violence took reasonable steps to mitigate the extent of their injury, will also be required to have regard to the nature of the relationship between the victim and the offender.
The Bill narrows the definition of "domestic violence" to exclude instances of violence occurring in more remote re1ationships. While it has seldom occurred in practice, the report of the statutory review concluded that the use of the broad definition in the Crimes Act could lead to inappropriate compensation payments. For example, a victim who receives an injury inflicted by an ex-flat mate at a social event would, under the current law, automatically attract the minimum domestic violence award of $7,500. This type of relationship cannot properly be characterised as "domestic violence" for the purposes of compensation applications.
I emphasise that this change will not affect entitlements for victims of domestic violence in family settings or intimate relationships.
Family victims in homicide cases
The Government is always seeking appropriate ways to support the families of homicide victims. The Bill makes a number of changes which will directly benefit family victims in homicide cases.
The Bill makes a half sister or half brother eligible for compensation in homicide cases.
A person, including a victim's grandparent, who has incurred reasonable expenses for the funeral of a homicide victim will be reimbursed even if there is no "family victim" eligible for compensation. This amendment recognises that it is a traumatic time for the extended family and friends of a homicide victim. It is appropriate to extend this benefit to a person who organises and pays for the funeral of the primary victim.
In relation to an interim application for funeral expenses, the Bill provides that an assessor will be able to consider whether those expenses are "reasonable". Where it is considered that funeral expenses are excessive, all eligible family members may have to agree to the money being paid out of the $50,000 that is available for the family victim award.
The Bill amends the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999 to expand the categories of victims who are entitled, in homicide cases, to make a victim impact statement to include the homicide victim's grandparent, grandchild, half brother, half sister or fianc(e)é.
This amendment builds on the Government's commitment to ensuring that victims of crime, including family victims, have their voices heard in the court process at the time of sentencing.
One of the main aims of the Act is to provide support and rehabilitation for victims through the provision of approved counselling.
There will be a number of changes to the counselling scheme which enhance the rehabilitative focus of the Act.
The Government is committed to processing an application for counselling within 48 hours. To make this possible in practice, victims of an act of violence will be able to apply for the initial two hours of counselling even if it has not yet been established that the person is a victim, provided the compensation assessor is satisfied that counselling may assist in establishing that they are a victim.
This change to the application process will give a counsellor the opportunity to assess the nature of any psychological or psychiatric harm before considering whether further counselling (up to a maximum of 20 hours) is needed.
As mentioned above, the Bill also changes the definition of "injury" to include psychological or psychiatric harm. Applicants for counselling who do not have a physical injury will benefit from this change, as it means that they will not need to provide that a psychological or psychiatric disorder exists before they are eligible for more than the initial 2 hours of counselling under the approved scheme.
The Bill also makes clear that a victim is entitled to apply for counselling even if an application for compensation was dealt with under the previous victims' compensation legislation (the Victims Compensation Act 1987).
The rules will contain further details about how the counselling scheme will operate and the rule making power has been expanded accordingly.
Other changes to the Victims Support and Rehabilitation Act
There are a number of other discrete changes to the Victims Support and Rehabilitation Act.
These include allowing a compensation assessor to adjourn a compensation application in matters where the applicant may be liable to pay restitution as a convicted offender. Compensation awarded to the applicant will be able to be set off against an existing or proposed restitution debt.
The Bill will also confirm that compensation is available to a victim even where the offender cannot be held criminally responsible for an offence because of age or mental illness or impairment.
The Bill clarifies the correct statutory path to follow when assessing the amount of compensation payable to a victim. It provides that the total amount payable for compensable injuries is the total amount arrived at after reductions are made under sections 19, 30, 31 or the Schedule of Compensable Injuries. This change is necessary in light of the (unreported) District Court decision in the matter of Appeal of Rice v Victims Compensation Fund Corporation.
Victims Rights Act 1996
The Victims Rights Act 1996 enacts the Charter of Victims' Rights and establishes the Victims of Crime Bureau and the Victims Advisory Board.
This Bill makes two changes to the Victims Rights Act arising from the recommendations in the statutory review.
The terms "mental illness or nervous shock" will be replaced with the term "psychological or psychiatric harm". This reflects modem legal and medical terminology for describing harm.
The Charter of Victims' Rights will be amended to incorporate the principles of multiculturalism that are contained in other legislation and form an important part of the policy of the State of New South Wales.
Overall this Bill extends the benefits of the compensation and counselling schemes to a larger range of victims in a way which ensures the continuing viability of the Victims Compensation Fund.
This Bill will commence in stages. It is anticipated that the amendments to expand the compensation scheme to include prescribed expenses will commence in early 2007. This will give the Victims Compensation Tribunal the period of time necessary to prepare for the introduction of the expanded scheme. Most of the remaining provisions are expected to commence in December this year.
Review of Government services and grants
Finally, as I noted in the House on 18 October 2006, this Government is committed to listening to victims and improving the services we provide.
In the coming months, the Government will start reviewing services for victims in New South Wales in order to identify key areas of need and to improve coordination between agencies.
The review will involve looking at whether victims of crime have appropriate access to support services with the important emphasis on ensuring disadvantaged groups and people from rural and remote areas are properly supported. The aim will be to identify key gaps and areas for improvement.
The review will also look at the arrangements for the support of family members of homicide victims. A working group will be established to develop a set of principles and standards for supporting family members of homicide victims. The standards will cover a range of important issues such as quality, ethics, cultural sensitivity and timely provision of support.
Once the service review has been conducted, options for better service co-ordination and funding, including grants, will be developed.
The provisions in this Bill build on the Government's record of listening to victims of crime and responding to their support needs with sensitivity and respect.
I commend this Bill to the House.
The Hon. DAVID CLARKE [9.23 p.m.]: The Victims Support and Rehabilitation Amendment Bill 2006, which implements key recommendations from the report of the statutory review of the Victims Support and Rehabilitation Act 1996 and the Victims Rights Act 1996, is not opposed by the Coalition. Indeed the Opposition has been advocating, for years now, a better deal for victims of crimes of violence. How often it is that we see and hear of cases where victims have suffered such horrific injuries that their lives are irreversibly changed for the worse. No wonder there is a public perception in New South Wales that, whilst the Government is incapable of reining in crimes of violence and serving out punishments that fit the crime, there is on the other side of the ledger a failure to be properly focused in its concern for the victims of violent crime and their ongoing problems and suffering.
The general thrust of this bill will be to extend the rights of victims of crime to claim for psychiatric and psychological injury arising from acts of violence, to expand the number of those in a victim's family who can make applications for compensation, and to make allowance for the payment of expenses such as funeral costs or physiotherapy treatment. In specific terms, the bill inserts a proposed section 14A into the Victims Support and Rehabilitation Act 1996 to provide that the statutory compensation for which a primary victim is eligible includes statutory compensation for prescribed expenses. Prescribed expenses will be those that are set out in the proposed Victims Support and Rehabilitation Regulation and will include expenses for such items as ambulance services and physiotherapy, and will be limited to a maximum of $1,500, although the amount may be varied by the regulations.
Under the principal Act statutory compensation is capped at a maximum of $50,000, comprising compensation for compensable injuries received by the victim as a direct result of the act of violence and compensation for financial loss incurred by the victim as a direct result of any such compensable injury, and a claimant is not eligible to receive more than one award of statutory compensation in respect of the same act of violence. Under this bill a primary victim will not be prevented from being awarded statutory compensation presently provided for by section 14 as well as statutory compensation for prescribed expenses. However, provisions will be put in place to prevent double dipping. Currently the principal Act provides that an application for statutory compensation must be lodged within two years of the act of violence unless leave is given for lodgment after that period. As a result of this bill, that time period of two years cannot be extended if it is in respect to statutory compensation for prescribed expenses.
The bill amends the principal Act to clarify that the Act's reference to an offence in the definition of "act of violence" extends to conduct of a person that would constitute an offence were it not for the fact that the person cannot be held criminally responsible for the conduct because of the person's age or mental illness or impairment. The definition of "member of the immediate family" of a primary victim is extended to include half-brothers and half-sisters, thus enabling them to be awarded statutory compensation as family victims. Currently, payments can be made for approved counselling services for victims of acts of violence. Now, as a result of this amendment, an initial period of two hours counselling may be authorised if the compensation assessor is satisfied that counselling may assist in establishing whether or not the applicant is a victim. There will be a requirement that a compensation assessor, in determining an application for statutory compensation, must have regard to whether the act of violence concerned was reported to a relevant health professional, or practitioner, or a relevant agency.
At present the Act provides that, in determining an application for compensation, the assessor must have regard to whether the victim took reasonable steps, such as seeking medical assistance, to mitigate injury. Now, the Act will be amended so that, in determining whether reasonable steps to mitigate injury have been taken, the assessor will, in cases of acts of violence involving sexual assault or domestic violence, have regard to the nature of the relationship between the victim and the alleged perpetrator. This is a valuable provision because one could imagine many situations in which a victim is too frightened to seek, or is restrained from seeking, early or indeed any advice or treatment.
Overall, the Victims Support and Rehabilitation Amendment Bill 2006 is a step in the right direction, although a very modest step. A great deal needs to be done before the Government can seriously claim to have effectively provided the support and rehabilitation assistance that is required. The initiatives provided by this bill are very small indeed. When the Coalition forms government in March next year the real process of genuine rehabilitation and serious support for victims of violence will finally get under way. Until that day arrives, the Coalition will have to be content with supporting the very modest advances contained in this bill.
Reverend the Hon. Dr GORDON MOYES [9.28 p.m.]: On behalf of the Christian Democratic Party I support the Victims Support and Rehabilitation Amendment Bill, the object of which is to amend the Victims Support and Rehabilitation Act 1996 and the Victims Rights Act 1996 to implement key recommendations from the statutory review of the legislation. The bill also implements recommendations arising from consultation with the Victims Advisory Board and key community groups. Before discussing the substance of the bill, I make a brief comment about the importance of civility and respect in our society. Clearly, this bill would not be necessary if all individuals acted in a way that paid regard to the rights of others. Those at the heart of this legislation have had their rights violated and, in many instances, the rights of their loved ones violated or stolen in a way that is often difficult to comprehend. Only people with a common experience are able to fathom the loss and despair felt by those who have lost a loved one because of violence within the home.
The Government is providing welcome support to people in these types of situations through this bill. The Bible asserts that we are to treat our neighbour in the same way that we would like to be treated. This simple but profound teaching, if heeded by all individuals, would revolutionise our communities and indeed our society. Civility, respect and honour are modes of behaviour that follow from this teaching. Clearly, the existence of this bill demonstrates that this teaching is lacking in families and social groups across New South Wales.
The bill represents an outstretched hand to victims of crime and may be considered as including watershed reforms in victim support and rehabilitation. The reforms in the bill have been long awaited and mainly come from the statutory review of victim rights legislation. In June 2004 the report of the statutory review of this legislation, including a review of the Victims Support and Rehabilitation Act 1996 and the Victims Rights Act 1996, made 20 recommendations on how the legislation could be amended. The report confirmed that the policy objectives of the legislation remain sound, but room for improvement was identified in a number of areas. These areas include compensation, counselling, compensable injuries, restitution, offender participation in the victims compensation process, and legislative responses to instances of sexual assault and domestic violence. The report played a pivotal role in the development of this legislation. Key victims groups have also played a crucial role in its development and they should be commended for their advocacy.
I shall touch on some of the salient aspects of the bill; my speech in no way refers exhaustively to the reforms brought about by the bill. One of the most revolutionary and commendable aspects of the bill is the introduction of what is known as the Victims Assistance Scheme. The establishment of this scheme was the first recommendation made by the statutory review back in June 2004. At present, in cases where a victim is out of pocket through an act of violence, victims can only recover expenses greater than $7,500. Any victim falling short of this threshold is not entitled to recover any expenses. That is unjust, and I am glad that the Government has revised the scheme so that people with expenses less than $7,500 can recoup a portion of those expenses.
In particular, this bill will allow eligible victims access to a modest amount of money for actual expenses incurred as a result of an act of violence. The expenses must total at least $200 and be not more than $1,500. The types of expenses that may be recouped will be listed in the Victims Support and Rehabilitation Regulation. Suffice it to say that these will include ambulance, dental, physiotherapy and cleaning costs related to the act of violence. The new scheme envisages that a victim may be eligible for compensation for prescribed expenses but may subsequently wish to lodge a claim for general statutory compensation. If such a claim is successful, the initial amount for the prescribed expenses awarded will be deducted from the amount awarded under general statutory compensation. This is to prevent double dipping.
I foresee that this scheme will be widely used. It offers a practical solution to some of the problems that victims face in the aftermath of crime. As indicated by the report, the likely cost of such a scheme is difficult to estimate. In 2004 it was estimated that around 500 claims were dismissed each year because they were below the $7,500 threshold for compensation, and in 2002-03 victims services received 7,000 applications for initial and further counselling. A significant percentage of these claimants could be expected to have incurred medical, dental or optical expenses.
Another important recommendation of the statutory review was to change the definition of "injury" in the Victims Support and Rehabilitation Act 1996. The bill adopts this recommendation. The definition of "injury" is expanded so that a person who has suffered psychological or psychiatric harm rather than a clinical disorder will be eligible for counselling services. Of course, those diagnosed with a clinical disorder as a result of an act of violence will constitute a smaller proportion than those who have suffered either psychological or psychiatric harm from an act of violence. The benefit of the amendment to the definition of "injury" will be that those who are assessed as having suffered psychological or psychiatric harm will now be eligible for more than an initial two hours of counselling. This is important because approved counselling is one of the principal tenets of victim rehabilitation. Clearly, two hours is not a sufficient time frame to adequately deal with the extensive harm that a victim may suffer, and this has been recognised by the Government.
For many years I have worked with people who suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome—people such as bank tellers, who have been held up by robbers with guns, or service station attendants who have been robbed by people with hammers, knives or axes. It takes more than a couple of hours of counselling to get such victims back together. Under the scheme victims will be able to apply for an initial two hours of counselling even if it has not yet been established that the person is a victim. As indicated in the second reading speech, this change to the application process will allow a counsellor the opportunity to assess the nature of any psychological or psychiatric harm before considering whether further counselling up to a maximum of 20 hours is needed. This is an extremely important development.
The bill widens the reach of those entitled to compensation in the case of a homicide. For instance, half-sisters and half-brothers will now be eligible for compensation, and the grandparents of a victim may be compensated for reasonable funeral expenses if they are out of pocket. The bill will allow an assessor to consider an application for an interim award where funeral expenses are reasonable. In cases where funeral expenses are not considered to be reasonable, that is, they are considered to be excessive, agreement for payment out of the $50,000 family victim award will be required for all eligible family members.
The bill introduces a gamut of amendments in relation to the work of compensation assessors, including amendments that clarify the procedure for assessing a victim's compensable injuries. In effect, these amendments expand the factors on which assessors may draw to justify an amount of compensation. Of clear significance is the ability for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault to apply for monetary compensation for psychological or psychiatric harm. This represents a turning point in the assessment of compensation, highlighting the severity of both domestic violence and sexual assault. This type of violence is an affront to the sanctity of an individual's physical, emotional and spiritual persona and the Government must be commended for this development.
Further, assessors will be able to refer to medical records, court records, counselling records and school reports to determine that there is an injury. Previously, reliance was placed on whether a person had made a complaint to the police about the act of violence that was endured. Of course, not all victims make complaints to police. In cases of sexual assault, it is more likely they will turn to their doctor or counsellor than to the police. Because of fear or reprisal, many victims of violence are reticent to involve the police in seeking redress.
Importantly the bill will also require an assessor to have regard to the nature of the relationship between the victim and the offender when considering whether victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse have taken reasonable steps to mitigate the extent of their injury. The exact repercussions of this amendment are not clear. It can be the case that a victim of sexual assault within a marriage is reluctant to leave the offender and thus mitigate the extent of their injury because of the close emotional, physical and spiritual bond that exists between the victim and the offender. Clearly, in cases where the victim and the offender are unknown to each other, the victim will take a different approach.
I now turn to domestic violence. The Office of the Status of Women commissioned a study that estimated the annual cost of domestic violence in 2003 at $8.1 billion, with the largest cost factor being pain, suffering and premature mortality at $3.5 billion. Those figures come from a survey by Access Economics conducted in 2004. Other contributors to that cost were permanent loss of labour capacity, lost production due to absenteeism, property replacement, and altered household circumstances. Domestic violence in that study was limited to violence between adult partners living in intimate relationships, though the effect of that violence on children was also taken into account.
The costs were based on an estimated 408,100 victims of domestic violence, of which 87 per cent were women. It was also estimated that 263,800 children lived with victims of domestic violence, and 181,200 witnessed the violence. The cost category "second generational" was costed at $220 million, the lowest of the seven cost categories. As emphasised by the authors, and as mentioned by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in a recent publication, that figure is high considering that it does not include the cost of direct child abuse. It reflects the negative and profound impact on children of witnessing partner abuse.
The bill refines the application of the law in relation to domestic violence, and has eventuated due to the potential for the word "domestic" to be misconstrued. Clearly, violence is not condoned in any way, shape or form. I never use the phrase "domestic violence"; it is simply violence against women. However, there is scope for compensation payments to be made when domestic violence is not strictly involved. For example, and as mentioned in the second reading speech, an inappropriate compensation payment could arise when a victim receives injury inflicted by a former flatmate at a social event. That scenario could be interpreted to involve a domestic situation due to the fact that the offender and victim had resided with one another at some point in time. The bill will now exclude instances of violence occurring in more remote relationships.
In the example given, although the relationship would be covered by the new definition, the fact that the offence occurred in a social setting at a time when the offender and victim were not living together would bring the example outside the new definition. The bill also provides that compensation will be available to a victim when an offender cannot be held criminally responsible for an offence due to age or mental illness. Clearly, in that type of scenario the victim should be given appropriate recourse and support regardless of whether the offender can be held legally accountable. I commend the Government for introducing the legislation. However, I draw attention to recommendation No. 6 of the report on the statutory review, which reads:
The categories of compensable injury should be expanded to include injury to or loss of a foetus, miscarriage as a result of violence, and associated injury to reproductive organs as a result of violence.
That was primarily urged to address the experience of, and the unique injuries suffered as a result of, domestic violence. The Women's Legal Resource Centre made a submission about the need to expand the categories of compensable injury to include injury to, or loss of, a foetus, miscarriage as a result of violence, and associated injury to reproductive organs as a result of violence. In its submission the centre states:
Many women experience domestic violence, often for the first time, when pregnant, and this violence is often directed to their stomach, back, and the unborn child, and results in significant injury which is not currently recognised in the schedule of injuries.
The report indicates that this point was also supported by the submission from the Law Society, which suggested that the categories of injury are too narrowly drawn and that consideration should be given to including further categories of compensable injury. Arguably, that would include the factors mentioned in recommendation No. 6. I will move amendments to implement recommendation No.6. We must do all we can to raise awareness that domestic violence is not on and that compensation should be available to all who are hurt.
The Hon. Dr ARTHUR CHESTERFIELD-EVANS [9.44 p.m.]: The Australian Democrats support the bill, although the changes are not extensive. It is important to support victims and it is worthwhile having a bill that deals with victim support. Generally victim support in this House is demonstrated by calls for longer sentences, as if the victims want longer sentences. The media generally deals with sentencing by asking a victim of crime outside the court "Were you happy with the sentence?" The general assumption is that the longer the sentence the happier the victim. But it is more complex than that. Some victims and their relatives would simply like revenge, but the majority of them would like to come to terms with why it is happening to them. My medical experience of people who are facing death or who have had some catastrophic injury is that they always ask, "Why did it happen to me?" The answer, "God works in mysterious ways" does not seem to satisfy them very much. We need a structure that provides a restorative approach to justice rather than a desire for revenge, which is found in some victims, some shock jocks and some legislation.
The bill changes the framework for victim support in a positive way. But justice should be used in a more restorative way, and taking victims into account as part of that restoration provides a great deal of scope for improvement. The bill is a step in that direction, and as such we support it. Some victims suffer psychological damage, which is hard to heal. Psychologists tell us that it requires huge amounts of counselling, which cannot possibly be dealt with by awarding sums of money that are available to pay for such counselling. The prevention of violence must be considered again. I had a concept for a department of peace, which would focus on social harmony as an objective in itself and restorative justice. Less violence would mean fewer victims, more money per victim and, therefore, a better culture for victims. I support the concept of victim support, but whether one introduces half- brothers or half-sisters to help victims or to make them eligible for victims compensation is another matter.
When my 17-year-old nephew was electrocuted—the mast of the boat in which he was travelling hit an overhead powerline—some of the people watching him hanging on to the forestay and falling into the water were immensely traumatised. One man who was sitting some way away from the powerline but knew it was there because his front porch was near it, tried to call out to the people on the boat. He felt immense guilt and trauma as he watched the mast of the boat move towards the electrical wire and saw the 17-year-old boy electrocuted and fall into the water dead, followed by attempts to resuscitate him. He blamed himself for not yelling and screaming, although he probably was too far away to have been heard. He was a stranger to the boy who was electrocuted and, therefore, would not be eligible for victims compensation under the bill. But we need a supportive framework, not money. That is another aspect we have to come to terms with if we are going to develop a society that looks at the more holistic restoration of physical and mental wellbeing that constitutes health. Although the bill is limited, we support it. I merely flag the wider possibilities.
Ms LEE RHIANNON [9.49 p.m.]: The Greens support the bill, which extends and improves the operation of victims compensation legislation in New South Wales. It puts in place a scheme under which all victims of crime can get some modest out-of-pocket expenses, regardless of the seriousness of the injury. It also allows for victim statements from grandparents and others who have been impacted by crime. We believe that this is a good outcome because it can help bring closure to people who suffer the consequences of crime. I take this opportunity to say a big thank you to John Evans and wish him all the best for his retirement. John's steady and considered advice has steered me, and I am sure most members, through the high and low roads of this House. I believe that when the history of this period in the Legislative Council is written it will record John Evans' key role. The call for papers provision is just one example of the way democracy has been protected and promoted in this House on John Evans' watch. Thank you, John, for all your advice. All the best to you and your family for your retirement.
The Hon. PETER BREEN [9.50 p.m.]: This bill is intended to implement the key recommendations of the statutory review of the victim support legislation and the Victims Rights Act. As the Director of Public Prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery, said in a recent letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, the tide in favour of victims of crime is still in flood. This bill will ensure that the flood continues. While I am a strong supporter of the rights of victims who were largely neglected by the justice system until a decade ago, the fact remains that there are a number of glaring anomalies in the way victims compensation is awarded. None of the provisions in the bill address those anomalies. Yesterday in the House I asked a question about compensation of $50,000 paid to the family of standover man Michael Pestano. I asked the Minister whether he was aware that the family of Mr Pestano received this compensation, notwithstanding that Mr Pestano was engaged in unlawful activity at the time of his death. It seems extraordinary that the Victims Compensation Authority can award compensation to a person's family when that person was engaged in unlawful activity.
Similarly, on many occasions the late John Marsden complained about people who were witnesses for Channel 7 in that notorious defamation proceeding, witnesses whom John Marsden did not know from a bar of soap, receiving compensation from the Victims Compensation Authority simply on the basis of a story. The reality of victims compensation in New South Wales is that this is the only jurisdiction in Australia where people can get compensation based on a story. In every other jurisdiction in Australia there needs to be a conviction before a person other than a murder victim, or a person who is claiming as a result of another person's crime, can claim compensation. That issue should have been addressed in this bill.
During the review of the victims compensation legislation in 2000 I referred to a number of other examples of problems with victims compensation. I was a member of the parliamentary committee that reviewed the victims compensation legislation, and I pointed out to the committee that in my long career as a lawyer I had seen many examples of people exploiting the victims compensation legislation. There were examples of people who were serial claimants on the authority making claims based on stories, for which they received compensation. At that time it was difficult even to get information from the Victims Compensation Authority, except by way of subpoena, to find out just how many claims a particular applicant had made. The review of the legislation in 2000 promised that questions of serial claimants and claims based on unlawful activity would be looked at again, and still nothing has been done.
Most recently we had the case of Roseanne Catt. Detective Peter Thomas and her husband, Barry Catt, made false claims on the Victims Compensation Authority to the tune of $89,000. Those false claims are clearly illegal—they involve corrupt activity—but no steps have been taken by the authorities to recover that money or prosecute the people involved in the false claims. So there are matters relating to the Victims Compensation Authority that need to be addressed, but they are not addressed in the bill. To the extent that the bill supports the recommendations of the review, it is good legislation and should be supported by the House. However, I suggest that serial claimants, unlawful claims and people who are the beneficiaries of unlawful activity receiving money from the Victims Compensation Authority are all matters that need to be addressed.
Reverend the Hon. FRED NILE [9.55 p.m.]: I place on record my support for the Victims Support and Rehabilitation Amendment Bill. During the time I have been in Parliament I have been an active campaigner for assistance for victims. In the early years the focus seemed to be on criminals and concerns about them, and the victims were neglected, forgotten. But in recent years there has been a change of climate, with a recognition of the need of victims, victims support groups and victims compensation. I am pleased to support this bill, which will expand the victims compensation scheme to introduce a new victims assistance scheme to give eligible victims access to a modest amount of money for actual expenses incurred as a result of acts of violence, for example, ambulance expenses, replacement of prescription glasses, contact lenses, living expenses while recovering and so on.
The bill allows a person, including a victim's grandparents, who has incurred reasonable expenses for the funeral of a homicide victim to be compensated for those expenses, even if there is no other family victim eligible for compensation. It also changes the definition of "injury" in the Victim Support and Rehabilitation Act 1996 so that a person who has suffered psychological or psychiatric harm, rather than a clinical disorder, will be eligible for counselling services. Finally, the bill allows victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, known as "offence-based injuries" in the legislation, to apply for monetary compensation for psychological or psychiatric harm.
We are pleased to support these positive proposals in the legislation. Reverend the Hon. Dr Gordon Moyes has circulated two amendments as a response to the submissions by the Law Society of New South Wales and the Women's Legal Resources Centre to the review of the Victims Support and Rehabilitation Act 1996. Those amendments relate to domestic violence resulting in miscarriage of a foetus. Compensation will be in the range of $12,000 for permanent decrease in but not loss of fertility, and compensation of between $18,000 and $28,000 will apply to another category relating to miscarriage of or injury to the foetus. I understand that the Attorney General is considering those amendments, and the Government will respond tomorrow. Hopefully, the Government will respond positively and accept those amendments. We are pleased to support the bill.
The Hon. HENRY TSANG (Parliamentary Secretary) [9.59 p.m.], in reply: On behalf of the Government, I thank John Evans for his service as Clerk of the Parliaments for more than 17 years. I commend the bill to the House.
Motion agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Consideration in Committee ordered to stand as an order of the day.