How do Psychologists view the Legal Definition of Family Violence?

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This is one response from the Expert Interview Series: Dr. Travis Gee. Refer to the table of contents for the whole series of questions posed to Psychologist Dr Travis Gee, on the topic of how Family Reports and the Psychology Industry in Family Law

2. Family violence is defined in the Family Law Act as “violent, threatening or other behaviour by a person that coerces or controls a member of the person’s family, or causes the family member to be fearful”- how does the psychology industry view such definition? Is this a conventional explanation of family violence that must be applied in a family report, if applicable in the circumstances of the case?

dv-non-sexist-violenceI can’t speak for the whole industry, as the industry can split along political lines when it comes to this topic. From a scientist/practitioner point of view, it is important that there be clear definitions of things, and the definition above has a problem in the part about “causing the family member to be fearful.”

Because fear is an internal subjective state not readily tested, and readily feigned, it becomes possible to use just about anything to raise a claim of family violence, provided the claimant states that they are afraid.

One major issue for men so accused is that it shifts the locus of the crime from the actions of the alleged perpetrator to the internal state of the putative victim.

It removes a barrier to criminal prosecution by bringing a civil standard of proof into what historically has been a criminal domain, allowing what is effectively a person-specific law to be written that can later be enforced with criminal sanctions, based on a burden of proof that is far below the usual criminal standard.

Furthermore, because stereotypically men should not be afraid of women, it makes the bar much higher for them to establish the criterion, than it is for women – so long as stereotypes are not weeded out as sources of ‘information’.

The net effect of such allegations is that a report writer is in the position of having to determine the extent to which a person really is afraid, or whether false claims of fear (and other things) are being used to gain leverage in the family law proceedings.

As the usual process is for the report to be done prior to determination of the facts of the matter,  this creates a contradictory situation where the reporter skates around the edge of ‘facts’ without making any determinations, as by definition this is up to the judge. This is a procedural issue that I will come back to later.

For the moment, it is worth noting that from scientist-practitioner point of view, stereotypes about violence have found their way into reports where there is a male/perpetrator female/victim slant that is inconsistent with the science on the topic, which suggests that while this slant is a majority of cases, the majority is closer to 50% than to 100%.

This is a cultural artefact of expecting men simply to ‘suck it up’ when a woman throws things at him, for example. It is discussed in detail in a 2007 article1 that reviews findings that go back to the 1975 US National Survey on Family Violence that found “female perpetrated abuse in intimate relationships is at least as common as male abuse, often extends to the same degree of severity, can result in serious negative outcomes for male and female victims, and seems to reflect a common set of background causes.”

Unfortunately the view that domestic violence is something that men do to women and not the reverse is still pushed in the more feminist corners of the tertiary education which many report writers receive, and getting past this bias to understanding what is going on from an evidence-based perspective can be challenging, requiring a significant degree of self-reflection that is not always apparent.

Despite mounting evidence that “empirical research suggests that domestic violence has been falsely framed as exclusively male initiated violence,”2 documents that influence policy in Australia tend to follow the line taken by DSS researchers  3who state that “Male perpetrators of domestic violence or sexual assault against men and female perpetrators of either offence against men have not been considered in this literature review. “

As with Oedipus, who never saw his mother again, the reasoning seems to be that if one blinds oneself to the problem, it ceases to exist.


  1. Carney, MA., Buttell, FB, (2007). Women who perpetrate intimate partner violence: A review of the literature with recommendations for treatment. Aggression and Violent Behavior 12 (2007) 108–115.
  2. Carney, M., Buttell, F. and Dutton, D. (2007). Women who perpetrate intimate partner violence: A review of the literature with recommendations for treatment. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 12(1) pp. 108-115.
  3. Greely, C. and Wallace, A. (2013). Literature review on domestic violence perpetrators. Canberra: Department of Social Services. Online document at

Valerie Cortes

Online Legal Information Author at Family Law Express
Valerie is a Bachelor of Business Bachelor of Laws student at the University of Technology Sydney, majoring in International Business. Upon graduating, she plans to work in areas of family law and international human rights law, as well as an interest in international business law and commercial law. She volunteers as an interpreter for clients at a refugee case services.
Valerie Cortes
Categories: 1975 US National Survey on Family Violence, 2011 Family Violence Amendments, 2012 Family Violence Amendments, Definition of Family Violence, Dr Travis Gee, Emotional Stress, Evidence from Children, False Allegations, Family Law Act 1975, Improving Responses to Family Violence in the Family Law System, Literature review on domestic violence perpetrators, Victims of Domestic Violence
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