Revealing hidden violence

UQ researchers working in criminal justice and domestic violence have influenced key legal reforms designed to better protect Australian women from domestic violence.

It may seem surprising, but non-fatal strangulation used to be largely invisible to the law.

Despite being a common experience of domestic violence victims and a significant indicator of increased risk of homicide, prior to 2016 there was no discrete offence for non-fatal strangulation in any Australian domestic violence legislation.

But thanks in part to the work of researchers at UQ’s Law School, led by Deputy Dean (Research) Professor Heather Douglas, this particularly dangerous form of violence is now recognised in more than one state – strengthening legal protection for those at risk and helping to keep them safe.

Drawing on the researchers’ detailed analysis that highlighted the risks associated with the offence, and how common it was, the Queensland Parliament introduced a non-fatal strangulation offence into Queensland law in April 2016

Since the release of the UQ team’s research, the New South Wales parliament has also introduced legislation that explicitly criminalises non-fatal strangulation.

Professor Douglas says that since the legislation was passed in Queensland, there have been more than 1000 prosecutions for strangulation, and greater community awareness about the issue.

 “It’s certainly increased knowledge and understanding about the risks associated with the offence,” she says.

“Hopefully when women experience non-fatal strangulation, they will seek medical advice to ensure that haven’t got any of the long-term medical complications associated with being strangled.”

The true impact of non-lethal strangulation 

Due to its insidious nature, the true impact of non-lethal strangulation is often under-reported.

Even if there are no obvious injuries, the damage done to the body could be catastrophic, Professor Douglas says.

“Survivors of strangulation report a variety of clinical symptoms, including sore throat, changes to vision, vocal cords, hearing and breathing, loss of sensation, memory loss, anxiety, loss of consciousness, paralysis, and pregnancy miscarriage.”

“Even where there are no immediate visible injuries, some victims may have died several weeks or months after the attack because of blood clots, stroke and brain damage caused by the strangulation.” 

“Strangulation can cause unconsciousness within seconds and death within minutes, and is the cause of death in at least eight per cent of domestic violence related homicides in Australia.” 

“There is also evidence that strangulation in the context of domestic violence is a risk factor for future serious harm and death.”

Glass et al. (2008) found that the odds of experiencing some additional form of life threatening violence in the time after being strangled by a partner increased significantly. 

In Australia, death reviews have identified that domestic violence homicides are often preceded by an incident of non-fatal strangulation.

One of the key findings of the UQ team’s research was that the higher risks associated with strangulation allegations were not sufficiently considered by the Queensland Police and courts in domestic violence cases. 

“We hope that police are now more aware of the risks and more prepared to charge offenders, knowing that perpetrators are in a high-risk category of further offending,” Professor Douglas says.

“It’s really important that non-fatal strangulation is identified on the criminal record of an individual, so future prosecutions can see the risk associated with this particular offender.”

Queensland Police Deputy Commissioner Brett Pointing says the police service is “highly supportive” of the new charge.

“Police have found it very useful,” he says.

“Certainly it allows us to put perpetrators before the courts and better aid the protection of victims.” 

Professor Douglas says that since the new offence was introduced, it was now possible to monitor trends and behaviours over time.

“We will be able to track whether decisions about charge, bail and sentencing appropriately take account of the risks associated with non-fatal strangulation,” she says.

“The impact of the research occurred immediately from the date the new law was introduced, and will continue for the foreseeable future.”

In recognition of the larger societal problem of domestic violence, UQ legal experts are now part a wider research program looking at women’s experience of the legal system in helping them to live lives free of violence.

“Domestic and family violence has an increasingly broad definition in most legislation around the country,” Professor Douglas says.

“And increasingly, it covers behaviours that are coercive and controlling.” 

“So that might include physical violence, sexual violence and emotional abuse, but it also includes things like technology-facilitated abuse.”

Technology-facilitated domestic abuse is a problem of increasing concern, and Professor Douglas has turned her attention to how smart technologies are being used to monitor and control people in new and unforeseen forms of domestic violence. 

Her recent research has identified just how common technology-facilitated abuse is in intimate partner relationships.  

“The use of technology, including smartphones, cameras, Internet-connected devices, computers and platforms such as Facebook, is now an essential part of everyday life,” she says.

“However, this technology can also be employed to facilitate domestic and family violence.

“The frequency and nature of abusive behaviours described by the women we’ve interviewed suggest this is a key form of abuse deserving more significant attention.”

The story so far:

2013: Researchers from UQ’s Law School led by Professor Heather Douglas commence a detailed analysis on domestic violence and non-lethal strangulation.

2013: Professor Heather Douglas is appointed a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law.

2014: Professor Heather Douglas is awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship titled: Using law and leaving domestic violence: women’s voices.

2014: The Queensland Government establishes a special taskforce to review domestic and family violence in Queensland.

2015: The taskforce's ‘Not Now, Not Ever’ report recommends a new offence for non-fatal strangulation is introduced into Queensland law, which is in part due to the work of Professor Douglas and her team in highlighting the risks associated with the offence.

2016: The Queensland Government amends the Queensland Criminal Code to create an offence of choking, suffocation or strangulation in a domestic setting.

2017: Professor Heather Douglas is appointed a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

2018: The New South Wales parliament strengthens its strangulation law by introducing a new law that only requires proof of intentional choking, strangling or suffocating without consent.

All images credited to: Getty Images/stereohype

Professor Heather Douglas

Professor Heather Douglas

Contact details

Professor Heather Douglas

Professor Heather Douglas, Deputy Dean (Research), UQ Law School
+61 7 3365 6605

This article was last updated on 27 February 2019.

Read more about how UQ researchers are making an impact.