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Family violence on the agenda

Briefs

Cite as: March 2015 89 (3) LIJ, p.16

Representation at trial for all clients receiving legal aid funding for their family law matter could be reintroduced, according to Victoria Legal Aid (VLA). Currently, only select matters qualify. 

The option is one of 40 family law amendments put forward by VLA after consultation with the courts, legal profession and community agencies. The aim is to make legal help for family law problems more accessible and timely, with the end result greater safety for families and children.

VLA proposals include:

  • developing simpler, more consistent legal aid funding eligibility guidelines;
  • expanding duty lawyer services to provide more help to self-represented litigants at the Family Courts and piloting a court-based mediation service;
  • expanding outreach and improving access to VLA’s family dispute resolution service;
  • improving legal and referral information for community workers who support vulnerable people;
  • linking people attending the Magistrates’ Court for family violence intervention orders with services to help solve other family law problems; and
  • developing partnerships with community legal centres and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island legal services to increase access to services for vulnerable clients.

Family Youth and Children’s Law director Nicole Rich said timely help was important for people whose first interaction with the system was when they visit a Magistrates’ Court because of a family violence intervention order. These had increased 46 per cent since 2009 while family violence incidents reported to Victoria Police had increased 89 per cent to 65,393 in 2013-14. In 2013 there were 44 family violence related deaths in Victoria with the estimated annual cost to the state more than $3 billion.

“The intervention order might be decided on the day but people don’t know that they need additional help to sort out their longer term family arrangements or how to get that help,” Ms Rich said.

“Well designed family law services will help us prevent legal problems, resolve disputes quickly and effectively and play a vital role in keeping families safe. We know that lengthy protracted court cases are not good for anyone particularly where children are involved.”

Recommendations for change, and strategies and actions to implement any changes, will be decided by the VLA board and published in June.

Family violence is firmly on the national agenda with one of its victim advocates named Australian of the Year. Rosie Batty, whose 11-year-old son was murdered by her former partner and his father Greg Anderson in February 2014, was given the top honor for her work highlighting the issue.

Ms Batty called on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to reinstate almost $300 million in funding cut from community legal services nationwide in last year’s budget. In Victoria alone, dozens of legal organisations will close their doors or cut services due to the funding withdrawal. Family violence experts echoed her funding sentiments.

The call came after the government announced national coordination of domestic violence matters. The federal government also announced an Advisory Panel on violence against women with Ms Batty and former Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Ken Lay as founding members. Ms Batty is also teaming with a national anti-family violence organisation Our Watch.

LIV president Katie Miller welcomed the proposals put forward for consultation by VLA and the commitments made by state and federal governments. “The Royal Commission into Family Violence represents a once in a generation opportunity to address family violence and the LIV is eager to contribute to the solutions. In the meantime, real people are suffering – they need support, especially legal support. I commend the continued work of the Family Violence Taskforce and support Ms Batty’s calls to reinstate funding for community legal services,” she said.

In another related development, the Victorian government announced the terms of reference for the Royal Commission into family violence, due to start in March, saying nothing would be off limits in its search for policy solutions.

The review, chaired by Supreme Court judge Marcia Neave, will examine support systems, police responses and women’s refuges, and aims to prevent family violence, improve early intervention, support victims and make perpetrators accountable. Tougher punishment in the courts for family violence offences was possible.

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