Resistance and Agency: The Important of Language in applications for Family Violence Intervention Orders

Understanding the relationship between how women’s agency, the extent to which they can tell their own story, is portrayed in Family Violence Intervention Order applications and the outcomes of those applications.

Family violence

Case study

Exploring the use of language in Family Violence Intervention Order Application Narratives

WEstjustice collaborated with Fitzroy Legal Service and La Trobe University on a research project to analyse the language used in Family Violence Intervention Order Applications.

While family violence is a serious issue impacting many Victorians, many victim-survivors still experience challenges in accessing legal protection and justice.

A Family Violence Intervention Order (FVIO) is one of the legal mechanisms available to protect women and children from family violence. An application can be made by the affected family member (AFM) themselves or by the police on behalf of the AFM. The language used in FVIO applications can have significant implications for how an AFM's experience of family violence is represented and understood by the court and other parties.

With funding from the Victoria Law Foundation Knowledge Grant program, Westjustice, in collaboration with La Trobe University and Fitzroy Legal Service, undertook a research project to investigate how women’s agency and resistance to family violence are portrayed in applications for intervention orders, depending on the author of the application. An objective of the project was to gain insights that could help enhance women's experiences navigating legal processes related to family violence.

"It’s vital that we continue to demystify this process, and support victim/survivors of family violence to have agency when navigating the legal system and telling their own story."

Hamish McLachlan, Legal Director, Fitzroy Legal Service

Understanding the role and significance of language

The project team was made up of academics from La Trobe University and legal practitioners with experience in family violence from Fitzroy Legal Service and WEstjustice. The project involved analysing a sample of 20 FVIO applications with the consent of AFMs. Among the applications, half were written by the police, while the other half were authored by AFMs or their advocates. A linguistics scholar conducted a quantitative analysis of the applications, while socio-legal scholars performed a qualitative analysis.

The analysis compared how AFM applications and police applications describe AFM agency and resistance, as well as respondent accountability and harm. It found that AFM applications tended to highlight the respondent’s violent actions and their harmful effects more than police applications. Conversely, police applications often balanced or shifted the attention to the AFM, particularly when they didn’t consent to the application.

A key finding of the research is that there is no clear, transparent, or easily accessible map of the process of applying for a FVIO for anyone involved, from affected family members through to magistrates. The research findings indicate that “there can be therapeutic benefits for AFMs in authoring the narratives of their applications. Conversely, removing their opportunity to author or altering the narratives they do author risks compounding the effects of violence by undermining their sense of agency and becomes an issue of communicative justice.”

"It’s absolutely critical to create long term sustainable outcomes for families, and having women’s voices at the centre is foundational."

Cleona Feuerring, Legal Director Westjustice

Cleona Feuerring

Findings also suggest that there are emerging issues of injustices in the FVIO system that may disproportionately affect CALD communities, which may reflect a racialised trend of ‘paternalistic policing’ in the context of family violence.

Informing advocacy and service delivery

Participating in the project enhanced the research capacity of Westjustice and Fitzroy Legal Service. Through the project, staff built skills in developing research proposals, engaging with administrative data, obtaining ethics approval, coding and analysing data, as well as improved understanding of linguistics and narrative theory. The project enhanced data collection and extraction capability, as well as developing a culture of using data for research, funding applications, systemic reform advocacy, and knowledge sharing.

"It was valuable to learn from the practice experience of Westjustice and Fitzroy Legal Service who are doing amazing work with people affected by family violence and supporting them to navigate what’s clearly quite a complex legal system."

Dr Emma Russell, Senior Lecturer in Crime, Justice and Legal studies at La Trobe University

Dr Emma Russell

The research insights will help Westjustice and Fitzroy Legal Service advocate for greater transparency in how narratives in FVIOs are written by police and the Court Registry, especially for victim-survivors who come from diverse cultural backgrounds or have limited or no English proficiency. Westjustice is looking at ways to improve systems and processes for incorporating the lived experiences of victim-survivors into their program design and service delivery. This will make their services more responsive and tailored to the unique needs and circumstances of the people they serve.


Staff from Westjustice, Fitzroy Legal Service and Latrobe University discuss the 'When Do I Get To Tell My Story: Agency and Resistance in Family Violence Intervention Order Narratives, including what they learned.

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