Women who experience family violence are ten times more likely to have legal problems and 16 times more likely to have family law problems than other community members.
Women’s Legal Service Victoria (WLSV) are at the forefront of providing critical family violence legal response to victim survivors, whilst also helping build the capability of the specialist family violence workforce. We recently spoke with WSLV to learn more about the legal support they provide and how their Critical Legal Issues Map (CLIM) training is helping family violence practitioners identify and better respond to their client’s legal needs.
What are some of the legal issues that adversely impact victim survivors of family violence?
WLSV: Our service provides legal advice and representation to women experiencing disadvantage in the areas of family breakdown and family violence. This includes family law, intervention orders and family violence, and child protection as well as the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal (VOCAT). With that being said, we also acknowledge that family violence can take place in any relationship where a power imbalance exists.
Women experiencing family violence often have multiple pressing matters that must be dealt with in different courts, in different legal areas and under different laws. It can be really complex. Many women escaping family violence are living with limited assets and serious debt, yet are walking away from securing fair financial outcomes because our court system is too costly and complex.
If a woman’s issues aren’t dealt with promptly and appropriately it can impact adversely on her safety and wellbeing. On the other hand, if a woman is ill-informed and rushes into legal proceedings or makes other legal arrangements, that can create problems for her as well. One example of this relates to arrangements for finances and property after separation, and the potential for a woman to be exposed to financial abuse if she is not fully informed of her legal rights. There is often a misconception that shared property only includes real estate or money in the bank but it’s actually much more than that. Superannuation, investments, cars, and tools of the trade are considered property as well.
Debt also has to be taken into account in property settlements, whether the debt is in the victim survivor’s name, in joint names, or in the other party’s name. It’s important to get legal advice about property as soon as possible because there are strict time limits to approaching a property settlement which many women don’t know about, particularly if they are in a state of crisis or trauma.
Legal assistance is an integral part of family violence response. How does WLSV provide legal support for victim survivors experiencing violence?
WLSV: We assess eligibility to take matters through casework on a case by case basis, in accordance with our guidelines. In the event that we can’t take a matter on for casework, we will provide appropriate legal referrals out. We accept referrals through partner organisations, community workers and other practitioners working with women experiencing family violence. We also have in-house financial counsellors and social workers that work alongside our lawyers. We have a policy team as well, and an education and engagement team. If a client appears to meet our initial criteria, we can then make an appointment with her to assess her case and provide preliminary advice.
We also provide a duty lawyer service at the Melbourne Magistrates Court for Family Violence Intervention Order matters and at the Children’s Court in Moorabbin for child protection matters. Our duty lawyers can provide free advice, representation and referrals.
How has WLSV responded to other issues that women have experienced through COVID?
WLSV: COVID turned everything on its head, and we had to adapt really quickly to continue providing legal and other help to women. We also still needed to conduct court hearings. Before COVID access to legal help and courts was entirely in-person. That all had to move online which was a huge shift.
“Factoring in how to address safety and access to justice issues was a challenge during COVID. For our clients this meant continuing to get the advice that they needed without putting their safety at risk.”
To do this we collaborated to assist the family violence legal assistance and services sector, and the courts to establish systems that victim survivors could access. This enabled us to keep in contact with the clients by phone and make online appointments.
We also worked on a regular basis with the Federal Circuit Court, as well as other women’s legal services across the country, to respond to the influence COVID was having on parenting disputes and the safety of women and children. This work led to the development of the National Online COVID List, which was set up to efficiently hear and manage urgent parents’ disputes that were being caused by COVID.
Additionally, we rapidly converted our training into an online format which we’ve had really positive feedback on. The unexpected upside of this is that we’ve been able to reach more practitioners, especially those working in regional Victoria. Clients benefit from this as well by having more practitioners trained.
Can you tell us about the Critical Legal Issues Map (CLIM) and how it can support specialist family violence practitioners in their work?
WLSV: Despite the high level of legal need in the community we found that those who most needed it weren’t going to lawyers for advice. Many people are overwhelmed by the law or simply don’t know where to begin the process of seeking help. When people don’t take action, that’s when they receive the poorest outcomes.
“Family violence practitioners are often the first point of contact for people experiencing violence, which makes them well placed to play a crucial role in identifying critical and urgent legal issues.”
Our CLIM training is open to and will be useful to professionals working with victim survivors of all genders. The specifics of the training will help them understand the essentials of family violence law, child protection law and family law, as well as understand the difference between legal information and legal advice.
The training and practice manual takes complex legal concepts and processes and breaks them down into step-by-step guidelines that family violence practitioners can follow when working with victim survivors. We take participants through an ‘intake decision tree’ that outlines questions that require immediate legal attention, how to triage and prioritise what needs to happen next. We also take participants through a ‘casework decision tree’ that helps them identify important legal issues that require non-urgent attention, how to prevent unintended safety risks and legal crises over time. We use lots of case studies so they can practice and be prepared for the types of issues and questions that clients might present with.
The CLIM has also been designed to align with MARAM so that practitioners can easily integrate the questions and information in the map with their risk assessment and safety planning.
Find out more about Women’s Legal Service Victoria and its services for family violence practitioners and women experiencing family violence. To contact WLSV’s intake lawyer phone (03) 8622 0600 Monday to Friday from 9am-5pm. Free phone legal advice can be accessed through Victoria Legal Aid’s Legal Help service.