Improving women’s economic wellbeing

Our Small Claims, Large Battles report was launched in March 2018 by former Chief Justice Diana Bryant and the Hon Sarah Henderson MP, attracting national media attention and stakeholder support. The report successfully highlighted the barriers faced by disadvantaged women, particularly those experiencing family violence, in accessing a fair financial settlement after relationship breakdown.

While the report offered 15 recommendations for practical change, WLSV has chosen to focus its initial advocacy work on superannuation. We directly lobbied key government officials and gained extensive media coverage of our proposals in relation to superannuation, often using our clients’ experiences to underscore the issues.

The ongoing Australian Law Reform Commission Review of the Family Law System has provided a valuable forum for us to pursue the majority of the recommendations arising out of Small Claims, Large Battles.

Supporting women in the child protection system

WLSV has been working hard to achieve reform in the child protection system so that women feel safe, supported and empowered. Reform efforts were aimed at supporting mothers in their parenting and ensuring decision-makers in the system respond appropriately to family violence.

Our initial focus was on improving the response of DHHS and the courts to family violence, determining how best to use existing complaints processes and addressing the impact of the permanency provisions in the legislation on the ability of mothers to parent their children into the future.

The permanency provisions limit the discretion of the Children’s Court in relation to the orders it can make once a child has been in out-of-home care for two years cumulatively. WLSV is strongly opposed to these provisions, which we believe do not account for the complexities of the lives of women and their children who are experiencing significant disadvantage.

We have used both complaints mechanisms and strategic casework (preventative and responsive) to highlight the problems with the permanency provisions. For example, we have represented at least two women to a final hearing in the Children’s Court where DHHS was seeking to place a child on a long-term care order (out of parental care). We successfully argued for the children to be returned to their mothers.

We will continue to pursue cases where children are at risk of being placed permanently out of parental care because of the provisions in the legislation.

Helping support workers identify legal need

Our training for community sector workers has been a continuous part of our work for 20 years and is focussed on building their capacity to identify and respond appropriately to legal need. This is critical to the crisis response for women and to their recovery from violence because people are more than twice as likely to consult a non-legal adviser than a legal adviser for their legal needs. When legal needs are not addressed, this can have a significant effect on a person’s health, interpersonal relationships and ability to participate fully in the community.

Six years ago we consolidated this expertise into our award-winning Critical Legal Issues Map (the Map) and training package. The Map provides family violence practitioners with the knowledge and tools to identify legal need and refer women for urgent help. The Map training provided to our family violence partners around Victoria ensures that women are referred for legal advice and representation before a legal issue escalates to a crisis.

To increase accessibility, an electronic version of the Map is being developed which provides targeted questions for practitioners to ask their clients to identify legal need as well as legal information and referrals across the intersecting jurisdictions of family violence law, family law (children and property), child protection, finances, housing and victims of crime assistance.

Alleviating the damage of economic abuse

WLSV’s specialist family violence financial counsellor had a stellar year helping women get back on their feet, often after years of physical and economic abuse at the hands of their former partners. As part of our holistic, integrated service, our financial counsellor succeeded in having one bank waive more than $100,000 of home loan debt for a client so she could keep her home. For another client, our financial counsellor had several debts reduced or waived and succeeded in getting a bank to take back a property whose value had dropped below the client’s loan amount. In handing down her judgment in this client’s family law case, Judge Bender of the Federal Circuit Court praised WLSV, saying we had:

“… done marvellous work in having some of the Applicant’s liabilities forgiven and otherwise having payment plans put in place that have enabled her to service the debts and maintain herself. They have worked closely with some of the lending institutions and called upon them to bring into effect their family violence policies to assist women who have been forced into indebtedness as a result of being victims of violence at the hands of the person who benefitted from the loan.”