System abuse is a form of domestic violence that occurs when the perpetrator manipulates a system to control, intimidate, or harm their victim. The legal system is often used as a tool by the perpetrator to harass and threaten the victim. This type of abuse most commonly takes place after separation and may involve tactics such as attempting to have a partner arrested, taking legal action against them, making false reports of neglect or abuse to child protection agencies, or applying for intervention orders against them.
In Western Australia, the case of Baron v Walsh  WASCA 124 determined whether the use of “legally available procedure” is capable of being an act of abuse under s 11A of the Restraining Orders Act 1997 (WA). Her Honour, Justice McLure P determined:
(63) It can be assumed for present purposes that recourse to legally available procedures without more will not ordinarily constitute an act of abuse under s 11A of the ROA. However, the intent or purpose with which legally available procedures are threatened or used can result in the commission of a tort (malicious prosecution, abuse of process) or a criminal offence…
(65) To threaten and/or take detrimental action against a person to achieve a collateral outcome is improper (at least) and is to behave in a manner that is intimidating, even if the action involves a person availing himself of legally available procedures.
The 2017 National Domestic and Family Violence Bench Book described System Abuse as a form of family Violence and abuse.
Perpetrators of domestic and family violence who seek to control the victim before, during or after separation may make multiple applications and complaints in multiple systems…in relation to a protection order, breach, parenting, divorce, property, child and welfare support and other matters with the intention of interrupting, deferring, prolonging or dismissing judicial and administrative processes, which may result in depleting the victim’s financial resources and emotional wellbeing, and adversely impacting the victim’s capacity to maintain employment or to care for children.
The effects of system abuse can be severe and long-lasting for victims. Not only does it create enormous emotional and financial burdens, but it also shifts the blame away from the perpetrator's own abusive behavior. This can lead to feelings of confusion, frustration, and helplessness for the victim. Moreover, the misuse of the legal system can prevent victims from seeking help or protection, as they may fear retaliation or further legal action by the perpetrator.
System abuse is consistent with Stark's (1) concept of coercive control, which involves the interweaving of physical abuse with other tactics, such as intimidation, isolation, and control, to dominate the victim. System abuse is a particularly insidious form of coercive control, as it often involves the use of institutions or systems that are supposed to protect victims. By exploiting these systems, perpetrators can further isolate and harm their partners, making it even more difficult for them to seek help.
System abuse can take many forms and can occur in various settings. Financial system abuse occurs when the respondent uses financial systems, such as bank accounts or credit cards, to control or harm the applicant, such as by withholding financial support or making unauthorized charges. Additionally, the responded can take such action as canceling someone’s mobile phone plan, or emptying bank accounts. Healthcare system abuse can take place when the respondent interferes with the applicant's healthcare, such as by refusing to allow them to see a doctor or interfering with their medication.
Another insidious form of system abuse can take place within a victim's work life. In this instance the respondent uses the applicant's workplace or employment status to harass or intimidate them, such as by contacting their employer or making false allegations about their job performance. One such example occurred in a recent case whereby false claims were made against the Applicant who was employed in the health system. The Respondent contacted the Applicant’s employer and claimed that the Applicant was an illicit drug addict. This caused extreme stress and the Applicant who then underwent a three-month hair follicle test to clear her name with her employer.
Child custody system abuse is a very common type of system abuse whereby the respondent uses the child custody system to harass or intimidate the applicant, such as by making false allegations of child abuse or by using the legal system to prolong custody battles. This can include coaching young children to say disturbing things and then recording these comments on video. The offensive videos are then shared with Child Protection authorities to try to portray the Applicant as an abusive or neglectful parent.
As mentioned above, legal system abuse occurs when the respondent uses the legal system to harass or intimidate the applicant, such as by filing multiple frivolous or vexatious legal actions against the applicant. One of the areas where system abuse is particularly prevalent is in Family Law. The link between family violence offenders and vexatious litigation was acknowledged by the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence in 2016. In fact, the Family Court of Australia has the highest number of vexatious litigants compared to all other courts in the country. (2)
Some vexatious litigants may be using the legal system to exert control and harass their victims. This form of abuse can have serious consequences for victims of family violence. The effects of vexatious litigation against a victim of family violence by an abuser can include significant psychological stress, high legal costs, children being exposed to harmful environments, feelings of depression and oppression, triggering of mental health issues, and a loss of faith in the justice system. (3)
Despite its prevalence, system abuse requires further investigation as there is minimal data on the experiences of both perpetrators and victims. This lack of understanding can make it difficult for victims to receive appropriate support and for the justice system to recognize and respond to this form of domestic violence. However, as understandings of family violence continue to progress and evolve, it is crucial that system abuse is not left undetected by the justice system. It is essential that victims receive the necessary support and resources to address the harm caused by system abuse, and that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions.
(1.) Stark, E 2007, ‘Coercive Control: The Entrapment of Women in Personal Life. New York, Oxford University Press.
(2.) Hosiosky, M 2014, ‘Vexatious Litigants and Family Law Proceedings in Australia’, Family Law Express
(3.) Fitch, E & Easteal, P 2017, ‘Vexatious Litigation in Family Law and Coercive Control: Ways to Improve Legal Remedies and Better Protect Victims, Family Law Review, vol. 103, pp. 103-115.