How agents can support victims of domestic violence

22 Apr 2021
Estate Agents Co-operative
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This week, Australians have once again been painfully reminded of the destressing reality of domestic violence in our country as yet another woman was murdered by her ex-partner.

As a community, we often feel helpless in these situations. As agents privy to these most vulnerable of moments, we have sometimes been at a loss as to what we can do to provide support and assistance.

In 2019, the NSW Government changed that, giving us the opportunity to offer some relief to victims of domestic violence. To ensure we are doing everything we can, it is important all property management staff, and licensees-in-charge are aware of our responsibilities and duties set out in the updated legislation.

Where to get help

If one of your tenants is experiencing violence within their home, there are a number of specialist support services they can contact.

The Domestic Violence Line, on 1800 656 463, is open 24 hours each day, for 7 days a week. Counsellors can provide support and guidance, and refer to various specialist groups that offer assistance to people suffering violence in their home, and their dependents.

Link2Home is a helpful resource for those fleeing a violent situation, but who risk becoming homeless by doing so. The hotline, on 1800 152 152 provides information and can refer callers to homeless services, temporary accommodation and other services, right across NSW.

The Child Protection hotline on 132 111, is in place to provide support to at risk or neglected children.

You can call it yourself, if you feel a child’s basic needs are not being met (for example, they aren’t fed or aren’t safe or are not receiving necessary medical care), if you are concerned a child is being abused or mistreated or is at risk of it, or if you worry they are being harmed psychologically.

The hotline says you don’t need to be certain; you just need to make sure your concerns are well founded and based on information from a reliable source.

If another resident reports abuse to you, relating to your tenant, you can notify the police, but always be mindful of the safety of the tenant (police turning up at the wrong time can make things worse) and respect their boundaries.

You can also reach out the Domestic Violence line above, to get advice and guidance about how best to approach the situation.

What you can do for victims of domestic violence

As an agent, your job in supporting a victim of domestic violence, is to follow the legislation in place, which allows them to leave the situation as seamlessly and quickly as possible, if they choose.

Ending a tenancy as a victim of domestic violence

According to Fair Trading, if your tenant comes to you and reports they and/or their dependent child is experiencing domestic violence in the home, you can advise them they can end their fixed-term or periodic tenancy immediately, without being penalised.

To do this, the tenant needs to give you a domestic violence termination notice, supported by a certificate of conviction for domestic violence; a family law injunction; a provisional, interim or final Domestic Violence Order; OR a declaration made by a competent person on a prescribed form (for example, a medical practitioner – which is then not reviewable at tribunal due to privacy).

The termination notice is then passed on to the landlord.

Termination, in this instance, does require a minimum notice period, but the termination notice should include a termination date. The date can be the same day the notice is given to you. They do not need to provide you the termination notice in person.

In inspecting the property, if you find damage, it is important to note that a victim of domestic violence or non-perpetrator co-tenants, cannot be held responsible for the property damage, so you will need to pursue the perpetrator of the violence.

This is also another reason all of your landlords should be covered by comprehensive landlord’s insurance.

Once the tenant has vacated, you cannot list the tenant on a tenancy database if the tenancy ended because they were a victim of domestic violence. You cannot use or disclose information from a domestic violence order or termination notice for any other purpose than that for which it was intended.

Clearly, a situation like this is destressing for the tenant, so a big part of your job will not just be to take and deliver these notices as required, but to ensure you have a strong knowledge of the process, so you can talk the tenant through each step, and help them complete it as effortlessly as possible.

This may mean pointing them to the requirements on the Fair Trading website, or, within your agency, preparing a simple document that you can provide, that shows them what is needed and how they can obtain it.

Who pays the rent?

While your landlord will no doubt be as sensitive as possible to a situation of domestic violence, inevitably the question will arise, “who pays the rent?”.

According to Fair Trading, if a victim of domestic violence leaves the home suddenly, with the correct termination notices and supporting evidence, they are no longer responsible for paying rent, with no penalties.

If there are other co-tenants living in the house, who are not the perpetrator of the violence, they will be given a two-week grace period within which they are only expected to pay a portion of the rent. This gives them time to find another house mate.

If they can’t find a housemate in time and they too want to leave the tenancy, they can apply to tribunal to do so. It is best to advise them of these requirements as early as possible, as wait times for tribunal hearings can be longer than they might expect.

Co-tenants can also apply to tribunal to have the perpetrator tenancy terminated.

The perpetrator who is a co-tenant continues to be responsible for paying the full rent, with no grace period.

Ending a tenancy for a perpetrator of domestic violence

While some victims of domestic violence will need to, or choose to leave the property they are co-habituating, potentially leaving them with temporary or no accommodation, others will select to stay.

In this case, when a final Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) determines a co-tenant (the perpetrator) can no longer legally access a property, their tenancy is automatically terminated.

If you have experienced this situation, you may be aware one of the challenges, is if the lease was only in the name of the perpetrator.

When the AVO is granted, the victim may ask you and your landlord to update the agreement, to now include their name on it. If the landlord says no, the tenant may apply to tribunal.

Again, when circumstances like these occur, they can be very confusing for a victim who is already in a destressing and confronting situation. Your ability to empathise and understand that a complex process can add to their stress, is important.

Ensure you understand the process and the legislation yourself, so you can give them every option available to them, to live in a safe environment.

It can be helpful to have a checklist on hand, so you can suggest further measures, once the perpetrator has left, such as changing the locks and security settings within the property.

The bottom line

Mission Australia reports that 41% of people seeking help from specialist homelessness services in 2019-2020 were experiencing domestic or family violence.

While this is a legislative issue for us, as agents, in that we now have rules to follow and adhere to, it is also a very real, very human issue for the 17% of women and 5% of men who are victims of physical violence at the hands of a current or former partner.

If you are an agency, that has a strong presence in your local community, and you aim to build real relationships, rather than transactional relationships with your customers, being aware of what you can and should do from a legislative perspective as well as a human perspective is always important.

Image by Sydney Sims. 

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