Organisations working with victims of domestic violence have welcomed NSW’s revised tenancy laws but warned they must go further to protect victims and keep them in their homes.
Revised laws will mean tenants who are victims of domestic violence can immediately end tenancy agreements – rather than wait 14 days – by providing a provisional, interim or final Apprehended Violence Order (AVO).
Previously, victims of domestic violence had to secure an AVO before they could end their tenancies, which could drag on for months in the courts. Provisional AVOs can be issued on the spot by police.
The changes also mean that victims are no longer liable for any damage to property or rental debt caused by a violent partner. Crucially, landlords and agents will be prohibited from listing victims on tenancy databases holding this information.
Wesley Mission CEO Rev Dr Keith Garner welcomed the legislation but said that greater emphasis should be placed on giving the victim the legally enforceable right to stay and the perpetrator moved on.
“Wesley Mission would like to see a legal provision for when an AVO is provided to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) that the perpetrator can be written off the lease and locks changed at the residence so that the victim retains the legal right to the accommodation, not the perpetrator.
“The first option should always be for the victim to stay, particularly when children are involved.
“While it is good that a victim can exit a legal tenancy agreement quickly, it still means the victim has to uproot and leave while the perpetrator stays. The victim often has to move away from family or friends.”
Where children were involved, their care should be the primary consideration and dependants should stay in the house where an AVO was involved and the adult responsible for their primary care should keep the tenancy.
Kellie McDonald, senior solicitor at the Women’s Legal Service, told Government News that some victims did not want to report domestic violence to the police, often because they were ashamed or frightened. In these cases, it would be useful to allow them to rely on a statutory declaration from a professional such as a doctor, psychologist or social worker, instead of an AVO.
Improving the experience of domestic violence victims attending the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal to end co-tenancies with violent partners, was also a priority. She said it would be helpful to drop requirements that victims attend conciliation with the perpetrator and that they give evidence in person.
But even when victims succeeded in booting out violent co-tenants they often faced extreme hardship.
“The most problematic are co-tenants on fixed leases,” Ms McDonald said. “If they want to stay they become fully responsible for all the liabilities [including rent] under the lease.”
Most people could not afford to pay the entire rent. Housing NSW runs a program called Start Safely, providing financial help for up to 24 months in the private rental market for those fleeing a violent domestic situation.
But she said the changes made it easier for people to leave violent domestic situations and gave them greater security in the private rental market.
She told ABC Radio 702: “Women flea their rental accommodation, maybe stay in a refuge for a period then find out later on that they’re listed on a bad tenant database and can’t rent in the private rental sector and they’re often left homeless or staying in unstable accommodation.”
NSW Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation Victor Dominello said the changes would quickly free victims of domestic violence from rental leases, rather than having to wait for a final AVO, which could take months to obtain, and stop them being branded bad tenants.
“This is an unacceptable and often burdensome process for people living in dangerous situations,” Mr Dominello said.
“The new laws will provide victims with certainty that they won’t be penalised in future rental applications. They also include stronger safety measures as a provisional AVO can be obtained quickly without court hearings.”
Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Pru Goward said that NSW was leading the way in domestic violence policy so that victims could swiftly leave their violent partners.
“Leaving a violent relationship can be one of the most challenging decisions anyone makes and we are getting rid of the red tape and streamlining the system to support domestic violence victims to leave,” she said.
The reforms follow a review of the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 and the new laws are expected to be introduced into Parliament during the first half of 2017.
For further information: www.fairtrading.nsw.gov.au
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