By Loretta Lohberger
Deborah Thomson knows what it is like to be strangled.
- Non-fatal strangulation, choking or suffocation is likely to become a standalone offence in Tasmania
- A draft bill is expected to be tabled in Parliament early next year
- Advocates of the bill say it would heighten awareness about the seriousness of the violence
It was one form of abuse the Burnie resident was subjected to during a 17-year relationship.
WARNING: This article contains details that some readers may find distressing.
She says no charges were laid because most of the abuse was in the 80s and 90s.
“No-one talked about it, no-one understood the seriousness of non-fatal strangulation,” Ms Thompson said.
After one attack, Ms Thomson, who has a neurological condition called Friedreich’s ataxia, required brain surgery.
The surgery exacerbated some symptoms of the genetic disease.
“I still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said.
Ms Thomson has written two books detailing her story.
“The more society understands what domestic violence is, the better equipped we are to make changes — and that goes for legislative changes and social changes as well,” she said.
Proposed law sends strong message
Non-fatal strangulation, choking or suffocation would be a separate crime in Tasmania under plans announced by Attorney-General Elise Archer on Thursday.
“I’m really grateful,” Ms Thomson said.
She said making it a separate crime “enables our police force to better understand … how grave this abuse is” and “tells abusers that they will be held accountable”.
The move was also welcomed by advocacy and support group Engender Equality.
“At the moment with it not being recognised as a standalone offence, there are barriers to people being able to recognise it and come forward.”
Ms Archer said the changes would be informed by advice from the state’s Sentencing Advisory Council.
“The Department of Justice will immediately start consultation with relevant stakeholders on the elements of the criminal offence, including elements of intent, harm and recklessness, which will form a draft bill that will be taken to Parliament,” Ms Archer said.
“This will bring Tasmania into line with a majority of other states and territories, including New Zealand, that have introduced standalone offences … the only state not to have this is Victoria but I understand they are attending to this as well.”
Risk factor for homicide
In its report, the Sentencing Advisory Council said: “Non-fatal strangulation, choking and suffocation have been identified as serious and highly risky behaviours, with potential for severe and lasting harm regardless of whether visible injuries are caused. They are particularly prevalent in the context of family violence offences. They have been identified as risk factors for future intimate partner homicide.”
The council also found that over the past five years, there had been “a clear recognition of the seriousness of non-fatal strangulation, particularly in the context of family violence”.
“The Court of Criminal Appeal has recognised that past sentencing practices for domestic violence were inadequate and has highlighted the seriousness of strangulation by focusing on its inherent risk rather than the identification of physical injury resulting from the assault,” the report said.
“The court has also highlighted the unique capacity of strangulation to be used as a means of coercion and control in a domestic relationship.”
‘Crime in and of itself’
Ms Archer said she expected the bill to be tabled in Parliament early next year, and she wanted the new offence to be indictable, meaning it would be dealt with by the Supreme Court.
She said a standalone offence would heighten awareness about the seriousness of acts of non-fatal strangulation, choking or suffocation.
“At the moment, it’s just really an element or an aggravating factor on sentencing, charged under another crime,” Ms Archer said.
“What we will be doing is naming it as a crime in and of itself.
“The current system, however, does adequately deal with it because the behaviour of strangulation, choking or suffocation can, depending on its severity, be dealt with either as assault, grievous bodily harm, or attempted murder or, indeed, if there is a fatality, murder.
“But what we’re doing by creating a standalone offence is naming up the act of strangulation, choking and suffocating.”
In its report focusing on the sentencing of people guilty of violence involving non-fatal strangulation, the Sentencing Advisory Council said:
The council also found there was “no noticeable disparity” between sentencing for non-fatal strangulation in the Supreme Court of Tasmania and sentencing in Queensland, Australian Capital Territory, South Australia and New Zealand.
The Sentencing Advisory Council did not provide advice about introducing a standalone offence of non-fatal strangulation, but did suggest Tasmanian sentencing laws be changed to allow for strangulation and suffocation to be aggravating circumstances in relation to an offence, and to provide for the recording of non-fatal strangulation in the details of a family violence offence, or other violent offence, on a person’s criminal record.
The government has also accepted the council’s recommendation to launch a public awareness campaign about strangulation.
In her findings, released in 2019, into the 2014 death of 28-year-old Sorell woman Jodi Eaton, Coroner Olivia McTaggart recommended the state government consider making choking, strangulation or suffocation a specific criminal offence.
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