Redefining family violence legal practice

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The impact of the recent COVID-19 isolation restrictions on woman and children experiencing family violence has meant that organisations have had to look at and change their approach to delivering crucial services.

Fortunately, Eastern Community Legal Centre (ECLC) has a proven track record of rethinking, redesigning and employing early intervention approaches to address family violence which has eased some of the current challenges in providing legal assistance remotely.

Marika Manioudakis from ECLC tells us how their innovative approach to legal service has provided leverage to help reach women during the recent pandemic.


Almost three-quarters of our work directly involves family violence, so it’s critical for us to respond sooner and integrate services to reach women before crisis point. A key question for us is always:

“how do we respond more safely to the legal needs of women at an earlier stage, when those initial warning signs of family violence begin to show.”

For example, we know that high risk periods for experiencing family violence are during pregnancy and the time after a woman gives birth. With almost 99% of women visiting their local Maternal and Child Health (MCH) centres during those first months, these services provided an obvious starting place for us to design programs to reach and engage mothers.

To develop the program required a high level of trust and support from other organisations who had relationships with women at that critical time. So our Mabels program was developed as a Health Justice Partnership (HJP) between:

  • MCH services
  • local councils
  • Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations.

These partnerships are unique. They provide an opportunity for legal services to work directly within healthcare settings. For us, that means our lawyers get out of their offices and into the community.

“It helps break down the silos that have made responding and preventing family violence so difficult.”

Mabels’ early intervention approach involves having both a family violence lawyer and family violence advocate attend clinic appointments at an MCH site. This sounds simple, but a lot of work is needed to build trust and develop solid relationships.

“For early intervention and integrated practice to succeed on the ground, all parties need to see value in the work; need to support each other; and need to feel ownership in the process and outcomes.”

Having that level of trust and coordinated approach has produced some fantastic results. Between 2015 and 2018, we helped 357 women and 480 children.

Given the success of Mabels, we decided to apply the same practice principles to support women during the antenatal phase, another a high-risk period for women. We developed the Women Engaging in Living Safely (WELS) program. This program focuses on women accessing maternity services prior to giving birth. One day a week, the WELS lawyer is based at the hospital’s antenatal services making it possible for them to be more responsive to women needing legal advice for family violence or any other legal problem.

We have also directed our response to the more complex legal and support needs of women. Our SAGE (Support. Advice. Guidance. Empowerment) program was developed for women who would not ordinarily engage with the legal system. We coordinate a specialist community lawyer with an advocate to collaborate on intensive legal and family violence support; and link women into wraparound support services as well as co-case management.

“By bringing the lawyer, the advocate and the woman together into the appointment, she doesn’t have to repeat her story and risk being re-traumatised.”

That’s the kind of integrated approach we’re committed to establishing and embedding into everyday practice.

The interactions of clients through these programs, and the relationships with and expertise of the practitioners have taught us a lot about how to prepare and implement policies that mitigate the risk to women accessing our service. More recently, due to COVID-19 we have needed to adapt these policies for our broader service, including our intake and legal teams. Having relationships like Health Justice Partnerships in place has meant we’ve been able to respond to some of the challenges of providing family violence legal assistance remotely. For example, this has made developing risk assessment tools and ways to mitigate risk for our clients much easier. We now have a series of resources that other legal services can use when delivering family violence work remotely.

An earlier version of this article featured in the December 2019 edition of the Advocate.


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