Leaving a violent relationship often gives rise to a large number of distinct but related legal issues, including disputes over property, family violence orders, child protection matters, housing and employment issues and welfare-related legal need. Access to a lawyer helps to ensure that small legal issues – like an unpaid debt – do not become much bigger problems for Australian women.
Women’s legal services across Australia have reported a dramatic increase in the demand for their services in recent months. Right now, legal services are having to turn away up to half the financially disadvantaged and vulnerable women escaping domestic and family violence who come to them desperate for help.
Frontline legal services dealing with domestic violence matters were already struggling before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and are now unable to answer 50 per cent of their calls.
There is also significant unmet legal need from women who experience sexual harassment in the workplace. As the [email protected] Report found, legal services "have an important role in advising workers on the relative merits of their options, providing guidance on which might be best suited to their circumstances, and giving support to redress power imbalances and avoid further trauma. In court proceedings or in statutory conciliation, legal representation may result in a fairer, more efficient process."
For eight long years, consecutive Liberal Governments have neglected the family law system and frontline legal services.
When it comes to the family law system, judges have not been replaced in a timely manner, funding has not increased in response to increasing demand and review after review – including many dozens of sensible and modest recommendations for reform – have been ignored.
Now, the family law system is at breaking point – and yet instead of fixing it, the Morrison Government has made a bad situation worse by effectively abolishing the specialist, standalone Family Court of Australia. Merging the Family Court with the equally overburdened and under-resourced Federal Circuit Court, will do nothing to address the problem of delay in the family court system, where it can currently take as long as 3-and-a-half years between a court filing and a judgement being handed down.
The merger of the two courts was condemned by experts as “a terribly gamble with the lives of children and families” and as exposing “survivors of family violence to unnecessary risk”.
Additional funding is welcome, but it is not enough – and much more needs to be done in some critical areas. For example, despite the great harm and additional stress caused to families by long delays in the overburdened family court system, the Budget does not appear to provide any additional funding for the appointment of new judges. Yet multiple reviews have made clear that increased judicial resources are critical to clearing case backlogs and ensure quicker resolution of family disputes.