Study into domestic violence and legal need reinforces urgency to invest in wraparound responses and expand referral pathways

study released today by the Law and Justice Foundation into domestic violence and legal need has reinforced the urgency to invest in wraparound responses and expand referral pathways for women and their children who have experienced domestic and family violence.

The study involved interviews with over 20,000 Australians and found that women experiencing domestic and family violence are ten times as vulnerable to legal problemsas the rest of the population, yet less than half of them access legal advice.

Dr Christine Coumarelos, who undertook the research at the Foundation, found that in addition to their domestic and family violence legal issues, women experiencing such violence also experienced at least one other type of legal problem in a staggering 92% of cases. 

The biggest of these was family law issues, where women experiencing domestic and family violence were 16 times more likely to have issues, but criminal and civil law issues were also more likely – and legal issues we found to compound upon one another.

Not surprisingly, most women experiencing domestic violence reported legal problems as having a “severe” impact on their everyday lives, compared with less than a quarter of the rest of the population. Common impacts included, stress-related illness, physical ill health, relationship breakdown, loss of income or financial strain and moving home. 

So, what are the policy implications?

Dr Coumarelos found “the results reinforce the evidence base on wrap-around services better meeting the needs of domestic violence clients, which underpins initiatives such as Domestic Violence Units and  Family Advocacy Support Servicesin the courts.”

But these integrated services are not universally available. In fact, despite positive independent evaluations being undertaken of each of these programs, with recommendation for expansion, neither of these “crucial” programs for women and children’s safety have been expanded to regional, rural and remote locations.

In response to the study, Attorney General and Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence Mark Speakman noted the important work of the NSW Government in implementing Safer Pathway in bringing “multiple human and legal services together in a one-stop-shop so victims have consistent access to coordinated support systems that suit their specific individual needs”. Indeed, the results of the study appear to reflect the success of the program with women entering the service system through police and courts more likely to have access to the social and legal supports they needthan if they enter the support system through health and other human services.

WDVCAS NSW has welcomed the study and its findings. “This is an important piece of research which further compels Governments at all levels to double down on their efforts to invest in wraparound specialist domestic and family violence services, such as Safer Pathway,Family Advocacy Support Services,Domestic Violence Units and Family Violence Prevention Legal Services,”says WDVCAS NSW Director, Hayley Foster.

“We’re really keen to see an expansion of Safer Pathway to achieve greater service system integration between specialist domestic and family violence services and key frontline servicesin health and human services,” says Foster. “We know we’re only supporting around 50 per cent of women and their children with automatic referrals from police, and that women accessing health and other family and community services are not necessarily being referred for the same support. This study is further evidence of that.”

WDVCAS NSW is also calling for a commitment from the Federal Government to fund the expansion of Family Advocacy Support Services to family law registries in regional, rural and remote locationsnationally. “It is simply distressing to see the stark inequity for victims of domestic and family violence in regional, rural and remote Australia going through the family law system”,says Foster. “It’s like chalk and cheese.”

Foster notes that in most regional, rural and remote family law registries, women are accessing the family law system in the context of family violence with no specialist support, no access to safe rooms, and in many cases, no legal advice whatsoever, let alone specialist legal advice or representation. In the words of one survivor: “I had to sit in the same room as my abuser and negotiate with him and his lawyer about my life and the life of our kids after everything he had done to us.” Another woman recalled: “They told me to agree or I might lose my children even though I was scared of what he might do to them. And what he was going to do to me.”

WDVCAS NSW is supportive of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s recommendation for the states to take over the jurisdiction of family law so that matters involving domestic violence, child protection and family law issues can be resolved altogether in the one court. “We need to stop victims of domestic and family violence, and children in particular, from falling through the cracks”, says Foster. “And whilst this will be a process which will take some time, adequate funding of Family Advocacy Support Servicesis something we can do right now to increase safety and improve outcomes.”

You can access a pdf of the full media release here.

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