A new study by the Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales reveals the huge unmet need of Australian domestic and family violence (DFV) victims for legal assistance and major adverse impacts this is having on their lives.
The study found that women experiencing domestic violence were 10 times more vulnerable to legal problems as compared to the rest of the population yet less than half accessed legal advice. Domestic violence survivors’ legal problems were also significantly more likely to have a ‘severe’ impact on their everyday life.
Angela Lynch CEO of the Women’s Legal Service says “these findings are consistent with our frontline experience. We know victims of violence are desperate for legal information and that specialist DV legal advice is essential to safety”.
The odds of DFV respondents also experiencing a family problem was noted as especially high – 16 times higher than those for other respondents. DFV victimisation was rated as the most serious legal problem experienced by 50.8 per cent of DFV respondents, followed by family problems (16.1%) and other crime problems (12.1%).
The results indicate that self-help is typically not sufficient on its own for people experiencing DFV to resolve their legal problems, and they are often high consumers of health and legal services.
The report recommends ongoing funding to support initiatives that provide wrap-around assistance for DFV survivors such as Domestic Violence Units (DVUs), Health Justice Partnerships (HJPs) and court- based duty lawyer initiatives that link victims to legal and human services outside the court system.
Further recommendations include expanding joined-up DFV services to better address the wide range of criminal and civil law problems, as well as family law problems that are often tied up with DFV which often span across Commonwealth and state/territory jurisdictions.
Ms Lynch says the report’s findings are consistent with the service’s experience providing legal and social work help to women experiencing domestic violence.
“We know that our clients are highly vulnerable, experiencing multiple levels or disadvantage and often have really complex matters. They need the wrap-around services offered by our Domestic Violence Units in Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Caboolture. We’d love to see these units rolled out to other high needs areas.”
“Our clients legal needs are often really complex – not just family law related. Sexual assault and domestic violence are among the most under reported crimes with astounding attrition rates as victims move through the criminal justice system. Defendants are entitled to legal counsel, while the prosecution represent the interests of the state which are not always congruent with those of the victim.”
“Our clients are telling us that as victims with no legal knowledge or experience they are left to struggle through the often long and confusing criminal court process, contending with re-traumatising cross-examination on their own. Many have legal questions about parole, bail and other safety concerns. They also have issues in relation to victim’s compensation applications and a need for advocacy around police interaction and at the investigation stage.”
“There is also the concerning issue of the criminalisation of women who are in fact the primary victim of violence and need to defend themselves in the criminal process.”
“We believe the establishment and funding of a specialist victim’s legal response program to provide legal assistance, information and advocacy for victims of domestic violence and sexual violence involved in the criminal justice process is essential to address this gap in access to justice”.
“This is just one example of how complex legal needs of domestic and sexual violence survivors could be better met.”
“The findings of this report reinforce the need for specialised, accessible, low-cost public legal assistance for people experiencing domestic and sexual violence to remain a government policy priority.”
More information on the Quantifying the legal and broader life impacts of domestic and family violence study by the Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales can be found here: http://www.lawfoundation.net.au/publications/dfv