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Legal aid DV funding ‘crisis’ puts women at risk

National Legal Aid 3 mins read

National Legal Aid is calling on the government to urgently fund Legal Aid Commissions to further their domestic violence work across Australia amid the national crisis, warning that $317 million annually is needed to meet demand for help.

The call comes as the national rallies against gendered violence demonstrate that the community expects more to be done. As one of the main providers of legal assistance services to victim-survivors Legal Aid Commissions understand this call.

Legal assistance services, including Legal Aid Commissions, are critical to addressing the crisis by helping thousands of women and children experiencing domestic and family violence across Australia. Access to legal aid can stop violence from continuing and keep women safe.

We have the infrastructure and ability to support victim-survivors of domestic and family violence to receive our legal and non-legal supports. However, National Legal Aid is concerned that the limited funding for family law services means we are unable to meet the current demand and we are concerned this could put women at risk.

In NSW alone, we have seen an approximately 30% increase in demand for our Family Advocacy and Support Services duty lawyer representation over the past 12 months, a 61 per cent increase in duty services provided by the Domestic Violence Unit (DVU) and a 36 per cent increase in calls to the DVU hotline. The crisis in funding for legal assistance services means that Legal Aid Commissions only work with the most disadvantage people in Australia. We need to apply a stringent means test for people to receive assistance which means we can only assist 8% of Australian households (when the poverty line is at 13%), and then only if experiencing other compounding factors such as domestic and family violence.

Melanie Alexander, a Legal Aid NSW domestic violence unit senior solicitor, said that she was seeing a clear increase in demand for services on the ground.

“As a duty solicitor on any given day I see between six to 10 clients, and most of these women present with a real risk of harm to themselves or their children,” she said. “It is clear to us the scale of the problem with the amount of people seeking help.

“The volume of clients accessing our service continues to increase on a daily basis. I have noticed women presenting with more and more complex issues – often requiring help with an ADVO,  as well as housing, debt and parenting issues – and they need more of our time.”

The family law system plays a critical role in our community’s response to family violence and women’s safety, with Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia data showing that 80 per cent of cases involve family violence.

Modelling in the Justice on the Brink report identifies we need an additional $317 million annually to meet the needs for family and civil law assistance, including for domestic violence services. That report also found more than $307 million in avoided domestic violence costs from this investment.

Without adequate legal assistance funding, it’s the most disadvantaged women – including victim-survivors of domestic violence - who lose out.

One single mother had no family support in Australia, was experiencing homelessness and was facing multiple criminal charges by her husband despite being a victim-survivor of family violence herself.  She was denied legal aid because the property she sought in the separation would have failed the assets test, despite not having any other assets to speak of.

Another woman earned $800 a week in two casual jobs and was therefore denied aid to support child custody proceedings the Federal Circuit and Family Court had identified as high-risk. She was only granted aid on review which considered her history of family violence and the fact that her employment is insecure.

Federal funding for legal assistance under the National Legal Assistance Partnership is currently under review. This is a critical time to advocate for the most disadvantaged women and children in Australia, through additional funding for legal assistance services.

There should be no doubt that the legal assistance sector should receive additional funding to assist with the crisis in domestic and family violence. However, this is far from the current reality of likely funding priorities. We hope that the Independent Review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership and opportunities for funding in the Federal Budget take steps in the right direction to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged women and children in Australia.

Louise Glanville is available for comment.


Key Facts:

- National Legal Aid is calling for  $317 million annually to meet demand for family and civil legal help, including for DV.

- Demand for DV legal help has increased, with Legal Aid NSW seeing a 61% increase in duty services. 


Contact details:

Media contact | Katherine McKernan, Executive Director, National Legal Aid || 0425 288 446

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