ABC News: Victim-survivors unsafe, unsupported at family violence courts, say community legal centres
By Matilda Morozzi
Dilal* knows the impact of going to court for a family violence matter with no support.
- Specialist family violence courts are designed to provide care to victim-survivors
- Community legal centres were given extra funding to provide services at the first five specialist courts, but not an additional seven courts
- Lawyers say the shortfall is unfair and putting victim-survivors at additional risk
The then 20-year-old had discovered she was pregnant that morning, then her husband hit her.
Having recently arrived in Australia from North Africa, Dilal had limited English, no money and nowhere to go.
She messaged a friend who immediately called triple-0.
Police came and applied for an intervention order on Dilal’s behalf.
She was told she had to go to court the next day.
When she arrived at court alone Dilal saw her husband and all his family.
“I felt like a sheep going to the wolves,” she said.
In court she waited for hours, she said no one told her what was happening.
“I was scared, I feel no support,” she said.
“I wish I’d never come here [to Australia].”
Dilal only had a few minutes with the duty lawyer before her case was heard — she didn’t have access to a translator or get the chance to explain what she wanted.
“It was so fast,” she said.
“I didn’t know what was going on.”
The lawyer applied for, and was granted, a full intervention order, against Dilal’s wishes.
Dilal found herself pregnant, beaten, without money or a place to sleep the night.
There was no one at court to help Dilal figure out what to do next.
Shortfall leaves people vulnerable
Eastern Community Legal Centre Principal Lawyer Belinda Lo fears many other victim-survivors of family violence will be left unsafe and unsupported at seven new specialist family violence courts due to a funding shortfall.
The centre had to turn away three people in one day last week at the recently opened specialist court in Ringwood.
Belinda Lo says they don’t want to turn people away.(ABC News: Matilda Marozzi)
Ms Lo said people would be put at risk if the next state government didn’t provide additional funding for lawyers.
“We are really concerned about not being able to provide proper, holistic legal care,” she said.
“People lose trust in the court system and then don’t engage, which creates more layers of risk and harm.
“It is the opposite of what specialist family violence courts were created to achieve.”
What are specialist family violence courts?
The Royal Commission into Family Violence recommended all 14 headquarter Magistrates’ Courts across Victoria introduce specialist family violence services.
The courts are designed to provide comprehensive care for victim-survivors of domestic abuse.
As well as dealing with family violence cases, survivors should get help with other court cases (like criminal or tenancy matters) on the same day.
Direct links to support services including social workers and housing, should be offered.
A press release from the state government in December 2021 said “co‑location with vital legal assistance and community services ensures victim-survivors have access to the holistic support they need”.
Ms Lo said co-location wasn’t enough — the legal services needed to be funded to provide quality support.
“We don’t want to provide, and should not be providing, 10-minute consultations for people who are experiencing extremely traumatic, extremely complicated and distressing legal matters,” she said.
“But providing trauma-informed care takes time and costs money.”
Family and domestic violence support:
- 1800 Respect national helpline:
1800 737 732
- Women’s Crisis Line:
1800 811 811
- Men’s Referral Service:
1300 766 491
- Lifeline (24 hour crisis line):
The rollout of the first five specialist family violence courts at Shepparton, Ballarat, Moorabbin, Heidelberg and Frankston began in 2019.
Ms Lo said community legal centres servicing the courts were given additional funding to offer comprehensive care.
A further seven specialist courts are being rolled out in Broadmeadows, Dandenong, Geelong, Latrobe Valley, Melbourne, Ringwood and Sunshine.
But the additional funding isn’t being provided community legal centres.
It means even though the Ringwood court has similar demand to Frankston, Eastern Community Legal Centre has not been funded for any additional lawyers, while in Frankston there has been funding for an additional three full time positions.
“Survivors of family violence should all be entitled to the same high level of care and assistance, unfortunately that’s not the way it is with specialist family violence court services,” Ms Lo said.
“Because the seven new courts have not had the additional recognition of resourcing, it actually discriminates against people who live in different areas.”
Uneven funding exacerbates problems
The peak body for community legal centres in Victoria said without additional funding for the new specialist courts, many victim-survivors would be left without any, or adequate, legal assistance.
Federation of Community Legal Centres chief executive Louisa Gibbs said people’s safety could be put at risk.
“Without additional resourcing community lawyers will not be able to spend the time needed with families experiencing family violence … or meet increased demand for legal support in court,” she said.
The federation said the impact of the pandemic, coupled with increased demand for their services, mean community legal centre were already struggling to meet demand for the legal needs associated with family violence.
“Community Legal Centres assisted with 52 per cent more family violence intervention order matters in 2020–2021 compared with the previous year,” she said.
“Without additional funding the new specialist family violence courts will exacerbate this problem.”
Ms Gibbs said properly funding legal support for family violence survivors would save the state government money in court costs and support services in the long-term.
The Victorian government has allocated more than $16 million to the Community Legal Centre Family Violence and Assistance Fund since January 2020 to provide specialist family violence assistance.
A Victorian government spokesperson wouldn’t say whether they would further increase funding.
“We’re continuing to invest in preventing family violence, encouraging respectful relationships and changing harmful attitudes,” a Victorian government spokesperson said.
The Opposition was contacted for comment.
What good support can look like
After going to court twice without adequate support, Dilal was put in touch with a lawyer at Eastern Community Legal Centre — Connie Chen.
Dilal felt like she had found someone to fight for her interests, at the time she needed it most.
The idea of other victim-survivors asking for legal help and being turned away was “shattering” for Dilal.
“Connie was more than a lawyer to me, she was like a friend because she was asking about my mental health and even if I have a place to sleep,” she said.
“I’m lucky that they helped me, so I wish they can help more people.”
*Name changed for legal reasons
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