NO JUSTICE FOR FAMILY VIOLENCE SURVIVORS AT FAMILY COURT

In 2012-2014, approximately 5000 women each year in Victoria used the services of the Salvation Army Domestic Violence Outreach Services. Of those 5000 women it is estimated that most of the services were for women and children escaping violence. After two years, 350 of those service users were randomly selected to see where they are now.

All of the group were immediately homeless upon leaving the family home environment. Some left without their children, and in 29 per cent of the cases do not have access to their children anymore. The perpetrator of the Family Violence, or government agencies have become the caregivers. In total that is 152 children without their mother in their lives. What generation of children will we have in the future?

A further 68 percent of the group now share “Parental responsibly” with their perpetrator, and “Shared Care”. Which means they get to face their perpetrator on a regular basis, and their children get to spend time with the person who they watched inflict violence on their mother. The biggest concern of this group was the undue pressure placed on them by Lawyers and the Family Court to share care with their perpetrator or otherwise be seen as an alienating parent.

Their legal support ranged from Legal Aid to Privately engaged Solicitors, to self-representation.

Family Violence Royal Commission Recommendation

1. Violence of any type needs to be recognised and should become a specialised legal area. Education and understanding is the key.

When you speak to lawyers, they will inform you, that usually you will become specialised in one area, and basically stick to it throughout their career. Yet I have had the privilege of seeing Family Court Barristers who “cut their teeth” so to speak in Criminal Law, and only went into Family Law recently. Their performances in court remind me of something of a circus that should have stayed at the Supreme Court.

Again and again I have seen Family Violence victims treated with disrespect by not only the legal profession, but also by Judges. Justice Thornton who was one of the first female Magistrates in Melbourne cut her teeth in the days of armed robbers, corrupt police, and women were sparse, not only on the bench. She went onto a successful career at the Country Court, and the Full Bench of The County Court before being made a Family Court Judge.

But to survive that sort of atmosphere of tough crimes, and horrendous acts, it would toughen anyones heart. I am not suggesting Justice Thornton is in any way bias, it his her criminal law past that has become part of her mannerisms.

So when you are in her courtroom one can close their eyes and be reminded of the late 1970’s and the old Melbourne Bluestone Magistrates Court. This is not the type of atmosphere anyone who has suffered family violence should be subjected to.

2. Legal assistance is a right not a privilege.

Legal Aid, now that is another circus altogether. Firstly you need to be fortunate enough to even qualify for legal aid, (which in the 350 women less than 60 did, basically less than ten percent.) The reason being is they had assets. That is correct. Even if you dont live in the family home, or have no access to your ex partners superannuation, or their bank accounts, these are deemed assets so you do not qualify for legal aid. Time and time again family violence victims are turned away from legal aid.

If you are fortunate to even get legal aid, each time a victim of Family violence attends court, they get a different lawyer. So they repeat most or some of their story (yet again) and hope and pray for the best.

Had these women been found at sea and been acknowledged as a refugee, they would gain more free legal assistance than women from family violence.

Then there are the family violence victims who sign over their potential assests in order to get legal assistance. Yes, your equity in your family home, and anything else you own can be hocked so to speak to assist you with legal assistance. That is only until the legal fees come close to the value of your assests, then you no longer qualify for any further assistance, and you are on your own.

Self represented family violence victims up against a party with representation is possibly the worst case scenario I have had to watch in Family Court. Usually the Judge becomes agitated  because time is being wasted, but also the unfairness and pressure placed on someone in this situation is so difficult to watch. Hence they sign up to shared care with their perpetrator, the quickest and easiest solution to get out of the court cycle.

What happened to the other 3 percent of the follow-up study? Well it is actually 10 women. In six cases the father has had no contact or walked away from the ex partner  (five did not have children and one was pregnant at the time which was stillborn), and the other four have partners incarcerated. No, only one was incarcerated for violence. The other three are in prison for other offences.

If you would like to read more about womens experiences with the family court and family violence a detailed report by Dr Lesley Laing called NO WAY TO LIVE should be read.

“No way to live”

Women’s experiences of negotiating the family law system in the context of domestic violence Dr Lesley Laing, Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. June 2010

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