Why are we means testing legal help for domestic violence victims?

Rosie Batty: "I don't think they are a consultative type of government... they should have a better understanding of ...

Rosie Batty: "I don't think they are a consultative type of government... they should have a better understanding of what it's like to feel financially pressured and going through a terrible situation." Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The Federal Government is once again punishing victims of domestic violence with the toughest measures it has ever imposed on women seeking legal help.

In a shock move just days after this year's federal budget, community legal centres learned they would be compelled to means test those in need of legal support.  Eight months of consultation were pushed aside to make way for just one measure to get help – financial hardship.

Gone were categories such as the risk of physical violence. Gone from the list were Indigenous women seeking support or people at risk of homelessness. The only thing which matters now is money.

The Australian of the Year Rosie Batty is despairing of the decision. "I don't know what their long term strategy is. I don't know where I can take this or have a formal discussion," she said.

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"I don't think they are a consultative type of government... they should have a better understanding of what it's like to feel financially pressured and going through a terrible situation."

Ms Batty has been campaigning tirelessly – 72 public appearances in 127 days since she was announced as Australian of the Year. She is desperately concerned by the government's decisions despite her relentless work.

"They are so removed from reality," she said.

Liana Buchanan, the executive office of Community Legal Centres (Victoria), said the centres spent eight months in intense discussions with the government about how to deal with the massive cuts to the sector and still support those most in need. But all that was wiped out two days after the budget when centre associations learned the government's new proposal. Now the government has said centres must target support for only those at financial disadvantage.

Buchanan says it amounts to a mandatory means test.

"A woman escaping economic and physical abuse has no idea what the household assets and debts are," she says. "She will struggle to get help because she just doesn't know how much debt, assets or how much super there is.

"We don't know what kind of proof we will be required to get and we don't know what the definition of financially disadvantaged is."

And what's worse is that just weeks before implementation, the centres have no idea how severe the cut-offs will be. Community legal centres are already a last resort. They provide a safety net for those who can't get legal aid. This is precisely why these changes will hurt.

"Women will simply not get legal help or will have to go into massive debt just to resolve legal issues arising from their abuse," says Buchanan.

Abuse from their partners. And abuse by the government.

One woman who made a submission to the Victorian Royal Commission on Family Violence explained exactly why such a decision to limit access would put women at risk. It makes for devastating reading. 

She wrote: "Having left the relationship I can look back and see how I have been affected by my husband's tendency to be verbally abusive to me and the children, to 'put me down' and constantly tell me I was stupid and useless and that I couldn't do things, and to control our entire finances and prevent me from going to work.

"I never knew how much money was in the bank accounts, what bank accounts we had, what money was coming in or going out, or the value of any assets in my husband's name such as shares and superannuation. He allowed me to take about $250 per week for housekeeping (including to pay for petrol and the four children) and I had to ask for any other money if I needed it.

"I am now experiencing the outcome of being 'kept in the dark' about the finances, including the signing of contracts. Despite my husband telling me that a loan we obtained was to repay all money owed to his father, my husband and his father are arguing that my father-in-law still owns 50% of the family home."

Buchanan fears that this woman – earning just $37,000 a year with four children – would be starved of support.

The federal government is making policy on the run when it comes to serious support for domestic violence. Community legal centres will lose 30 per cent of their funding by the end of 2018 at the same time as police in Australia are handling one domestic violence matter every two minutes; and every three hours, a woman turns up in emergency because of injuries sustained in family violence. 41 women are dead, the vast majority allegedly killed by someone they knew.

The government made  a song-and-dance about the $4 million it gave to 1800 RESPECT. But what they didn't mention – no-one mentioned – was that it was last year's money. Karen Willis, the Executive Officer of Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia and 1800 RESPECT, says the organisation is grateful for the money.

"The problem we have is that the demand is increasing. We are really appreciative and really happy but it hasn't solved the problem.

"At the same time [as the news of their funding], we have the community legal centres cut. What do we do with women who need legal advice? Access to refuges is highly problematic.

"People are coming forward and the system is being overwhelmed.

"The tsunami is coming and we are not ready for it."

 

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.