The spectre of domestic violence in Australia does not discriminate by victim or perpetrator.

As evidenced in a single day of hearings before the Family Violence Court – a specialist court held in the Adelaide Magistrates Court that hears criminal matters connected to domestic and family violence and abuse – a broad cross-section of society can be either the accused, or the victim.

Among those appearing are adults of all ages, backgrounds and cultures including parents, children, partners and ex-lovers.

In one case, the accused is the sister-in-law of a victim.

Their alleged crimes range from theft, property damage, stalking, being unlawfully on premises, assault and trespass. 

Many are appearing solely in answer to an intervention order. Some of the alleged incidents occurred months before, others just hours earlier.

We spent a day in the ochre-coloured courtroom 17, which is one of several courts in South Australia to offer the program, which first piloted in 1997.

Presiding over the 30 matters is the court’s current list manager Magistrate Roderick Jensen.

“In the Family Violence Court you get people from all walks of life and all different backgrounds,” he explains.

“Some of them have prior incidents involving the police … but there’s also a lot of people that come before the court for the first time.

“It’s a matter of dealing with each different person as they come before the court, and understanding what their particular circumstances are.”

A series of domestic violence cases throughout the state – including four alleged murders in a single week in November – prompted the state government to announce a royal commission into domestic, family and sexual violence. 

The $3 million inquiry has opened submissions on its issues paper through its website.

Statistics released by SA Police earlier this year revealed domestic violence was, in-part, to blame for a 70 per spent spike in reported murders in SA in the past year.

Currently, the ABC’s counter places the number of women who have been murdered this year, where a man has been charged or convicted, at 38.  

A specialist Family Violence Court is held in the Adelaide Magistrates Court.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

The courtroom is like any other in the busy Angas St building, situated at the southern end of Victoria Square, except the alleged abusers and respondents take a seat alongside their lawyer – if they have one – at the bar table.

Most of those appearing before Mr Jensen in the windowless room take a seat in person – but there are men and women who appear via video link from prison. Of those appearing, the vast majority are men, about one in five are women.

One man is brought in from court cells to sit beside two sheriff’s officers in the glass-panelled dock.

The man, a successful businessman from interstate, was arrested the night before after allegedly assaulting his wife on a bus as the pair returned from a day at a winery where he consumed “a lot of alcohol and no food”.

The court hears the alleged incident was sparked by a disagreement about sending an email. 

The man, who is represented by a duty solicitor – a lawyer provided by the Legal Services Commission to help people arrested overnight who have not yet been able to obtain legal assistance – asks the court to release him on bail.

He plans to return to the city motel where he and his wife have been staying – albeit in separate rooms – and catch the same flight home the following morning where he is ordered to live separately from his wife.

Mr Jensen grants the man bail, but imposes an intervention order which has effect throughout Australia.

The terms include a ban on assaulting, threatening harm, any surveillance or publishing any material on the internet.

“The offence alleged against you is serious,” Mr Jensen tells the man, and warns that any breach of the intervention order will render the man a prescribed applicant with a presumption against bail.

Some men are directed to attend an abuse prevention program which aims to teach them to “behave safely in relationships”.  (ABC News: Carl Saville)

Abuse prevention program teaches men to ‘change thinking’

Also appearing before Mr Jensen on an intervention order is a migrant who arrived in Australia more than 15 years ago. 

He is accused of an assault on his wife – but tells the court that “nothing like this has ever happened before” in their 12-year marriage. 

Mr Jensen explains to the man he may be suitable for an abuse prevention program – an early-intervention initiative the court offers, which is aimed at “supporting men to recognise and stop their use of power and control, and to behave safely in relationships”.

The program is run by qualified counsellors and reports are provided back to the court which can consider the participant’s progress in the program when finalising a matter.

The man is handed a brochure which describes the initiative as “an opportunity for you to learn how to change your thinking and behaviour so you can aim towards achieving respectful relationships in your life”.

Mr Jensen explains that while the man is yet to appear on a criminal charge, if deemed suitable, he must attend the prevention program as a condition of his intervention order.

“Regardless of what happens with the (criminal charge), it doesn’t affect whether you can participate in the program,” he says.

“The program is very beneficial in assisting you to examine your behaviours and how you behave in a relationship.”

Intervention orders can be imposed before any criminal charges are laid.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Matters can take months to finalise

Appearing soon after is a woman who pleads guilty to a charge of being unlawfully on premises after she was found hiding in the rear yard of her ex-husband’s home. 

Her lawyer tells the court a “very narrow and unique set of circumstances” led to the offending and involved a friend sending the woman an image of her ex-husband – with whom she had been trying to reconcile with – with another woman. 

The lawyer says the woman went to the house to fetch her belongings, which were stored outside under a verandah. She is released without conviction.

Later in the day, a middle-aged man representing himself, asks the court to vary his intervention order because he wants to return to his family home after a conversation with his wife.

He is accused of an assault against his daughter and admits he has a drinking problem. He is worried he will fall back into those bad habits, because there are regular drinkers in the share house where he resides.

He tells the court he is yet to obtain legal advice, which Mr Jensen encourages him to do before his next hearing. 

Other cases appearing before Mr Jensen include a woman accused of threatening her partner’s sister, an older man accused of an incident involving his ex-wife sparked by a property settlement dispute and a young man recently accused of an alleged assault against a former partner a year earlier. 

The court is told police are yet to decide if the young man will face criminal charges, but police seek an intervention order to restrict his contact with the former partner – unless it relates solely to the care of their child.

The man – who is represented by a lawyer – nervously twitches his hands as his lawyer tells the court the allegations against his client are denied and he has concerns about “the motives” behind the allegations. He will return to court later in the year.

Many of the matters before the court take months to finalise, depending on the availability of evidence, legal advice and any negotiations between the prosecution and defence.

Throughout the day, a number of cases are adjourned – some people listed fail to attend and have warrants issued, while in other matters, requests for more time to obtain legal advice are granted. Other matters are withdrawn altogether.

Magistrate Roderick Jensen says there is always hope for people to realise family violence is intolerable.(ABC News)

As he finishes the last matter for the day, Mr Jensen explains each case before the court must be considered on its own merit.

He says there is always hope for people to realise family violence is intolerable – and that education is key.

“You can’t really give up on anybody, there’s always the opportunity that they will rehabilitate … they’ve just got to get to the place where they realise that there’s different choices that they can make,” he says.

Court process where perpetrators can ‘inflict further harm’

Acting chief executive of the Women’s Legal Service SA Lisa McClure says it fields between 40 and 100 calls each day from women from a range of backgrounds including First Nations women, women on temporary visas, women with disabilities and women who have children with disabilities or complex needs.

“Many women, even after the relationship has ended, whether there is an intervention order or not, go on to have a lifetime of fear and anxiety, particularly when there are children involved and shared care arrangements,” she says.

She says the current housing crisis and restrictions of accommodation services means the service is called upon to provide “advice that is both legal and non-legal in relation to women protecting their lives and safety, as well as their children and financial interests”.

“The court process is often where perpetrators can inflict further harm to women and children,” she says. 

“This can be done by making false allegations of abuse against them, withholding children, not participating in the court proceedings, or simply putting lies in court documents for the women to respond to.”

She says there are multiple areas where improvements could be made and “all impact on our women in their endeavours to lead a life free of violence, intimidation and fear”.

Ms McClure says the service will be putting forward a submission to the royal commission.

“(We) hope for systemic change across the domestic and family violence systems that will endeavour to keep women and children safe and free from violence, but also to ensure that healing and change programs are developed for perpetrators,” she says.

Natasha Stott Despoja says family and domestic violence is an “awful scourge”.(ABC News: Rory McClaren)

The royal commission, which began on Monday, aims to examine prevention, early intervention, response, recovery and healing, and has until July 2025 to present its findings.

Former senator Natasha Stott Despoja, who is heading the commission, told ABC News domestic and family violence is an “awful scourge that affects everyone”.

“I know very few people who are not touched by this awful manifestation of gender inequality – and that’s violence against women and children primarily,” she says.

“Everywhere I have lived, worked, travelled, I have seen often first-hand the impact of this violence, particularly against women and children.

“It haunts me.”

Ms Stott Despoja says the public has until August 16 to respond to an issues paper released by her office, and until the end of September to make broader submissions to the inquiry.

She said her office will also release a survey for people to share their views and experiences of domestic, family and sexual violence “in a trauma-informed way, in an accessible way”.

“I don’t want anyone to feel excluded,” she says.

“I want people to feel they can tell us their stories and also advocate for or give us ideas for change.”