Family violence, homelessness and the Royal Commission into Family Violence: The place of community legal help

June 16, 2016 |

Community legal centres (CLCs) play an essential part in the Victorian response to family violence. Most obviously, 20 CLCs provide duty lawyers for family violence intervention order matters in 29 Magistrates’ Courts around the State. These CLCs mainly assist victims – the majority being women and their children – so that they can be effectively protected from the perpetrator’s violence. The fact that CLCs specialise in this way helps victims, because those CLCs are aware of the appropriate support pathways, have close relationships with other family violence service providers, and are trained to work with traumatised clients.

Dr Chris Atmore, Senior Policy Adviser, Federation of Community Legal Centres (Victoria) Inc.

Dr Chris Atmore, Senior Policy Adviser, Federation of Community Legal Centres (Victoria) Inc.

This article was first published in Parity magazine, a publication of the Council to Homeless Persons.

 

 

 

Community legal centres (CLCs) play an essential part in the Victorian response to family violence. Most obviously, 20 CLCs provide duty lawyers for family violence intervention order matters in 29 Magistrates’ Courts around the State. These CLCs mainly assist victims – the majority being women and their children – so that they can be effectively protected from the perpetrator’s violence. The fact that CLCs specialise in this way helps victims, because those CLCs are aware of the appropriate support pathways, have close relationships with other family violence service providers, and are trained to work with traumatised clients.

CLC frontline legal advice and representation also aids prevention of and responses to homelessness, by helping women and their children to become safe, either in their existing home or in their new location. For example, where the woman wants to exclude the perpetrator from the home, the CLC lawyer will work to include this as a condition on the intervention order sought.

CLC lawyers provide further specialist assistance with a raft of family violence -related legal issues, both at court and, more commonly due to very limited duty lawyer time, back at the CLC itself. Many of these legal problems impact directly on both immediate housing and the risk of long-term homelessness. For example, CLCs can assist with victims of crime compensation claims, including funds to change the locks or otherwise make the home more secure. Women in rental accommodation can also be helped with related matters, such as changing the tenancy agreement into her name and ensuring where possible that she is not burdened with bills or evicted for damage incurred by the perpetrator.

Justice Connect Homeless Law’s Women’s Homelessness Prevention Project (WHPP) is the CLC specialist here, as outlined by Patrick Warner and Rachelle Driver in this issue. More broadly, many CLCs help women with legal issues that if left to fester are likely to exacerbate the risk of women and children becoming homeless by further decreasing their financial resources or endangering their safety. These issues include debt and unpaid fines – often incurred by the perpetrator of the violence and associated with economic abuse – Centrelink matters, child support and family law. Victims also often need ongoing advice about intervention orders such as variations and contraventions.

CLC lawyers are particularly well placed to do this work because we are embedded in our local communities, and able to develop suitably tailored innovative projects such as the WHPP. Such projects work in collaboration with family violence and other services wherever possible. In contrast, mainstream lawyers typically work separately from other services, contributing to a system where ‘women going through family violence have to juggle so many government agencies, jurisdictions and professionals, and the burden is entirely on them to manage it.’ (1) Victims may be too vulnerable or lack capacity to seek out a new service provider and re-tell their story.

Evidence suggests that an integrated, multi-disciplinary approach is the most effective way to meet the legal needs of vulnerable and disadvantaged people, including victims of family violence. (2) Several recent CLC projects also show the additional benefits of lawyers working closely with financial counselling, social work and health providers. (3)

Increasing demand, decreasing funding

In the past ten years, CLC family violence cases have increased by 490% to 9,857 in 2014-15. And still, many victims cannot access legal assistance when attending court to seek an intervention order. In regional courts, local CLCs may not have resources to provide a duty lawyer service. In others, the increase in family violence intervention order applications means the court is listing additional sitting days that the duty lawyer service is unable to support.

Last year, out of 35,691 intervention order applications, only 28% of victims seeking an intervention order received help from a specialist CLC duty lawyer.

A big contributor to this gap in duty lawyer legal help is, as the Royal Commission into Family Violence Report notes, the reality that independent legal advice for victims is provided for almost none of the 66% of family violence intervention order applications that are made by police on behalf of victims. While police applications are usually easier for victims of violence, Victoria Police is not acting for them, and so the victim may need her own legal advice. (4) This is rarely provided, due at least in part to lack of CLC resources.

Limited CLC funding means that even existing duty lawyer needs cannot be met, let alone providing more holistic help to family violence victims in any systematic way. While both Federal and State/Territory Governments contribute CLC funding, Federal contributions lag behind. In Victoria, the State Government currently contributes 60% of the total government share. CLCs face a 30% federal cut from July 2017. (5)

One-off or limited-term funds play an increasingly significant role for CLCs, including in trying to sustain family violence legal help. In order to stay financially afloat, CLCs have also sought to diversify sources of income. Much of the more holistic family violence-related legal help that CLCs are able to provide is funded from philanthropic sources, and via Legal Services Board project grant applications. This patchwork funding is tenuous and not conducive to long-term planning.

For these pressing service reasons, and also because, with family violence comprising 40% of our new cases, CLCs also engage significantly in family violence policy and law reform, we welcomed the Royal Commission into Family Violence.

CLCs and the Royal Commission

Having participated extensively via submissions, hearings and consultations, CLCs are pleased to see many of our concerns for our clients noted and addressed in the Commission’s findings and recommendations, and to hear strong assurances from the Victorian Government about their commitment to implementing the recommended changes.

It is particularly important that the Commission and the Government response have identified the weaknesses in the present ‘silo’ approach to responding to and preventing family violence, and instead have stressed the need for a genuinely integrated family violence system that is built on collaboration between government and relevant community organisations, and underpinned by strong governance arrangements.

Valuing such partnerships at both policy and service provision levels makes it much less likely that women and children will ‘fall through the cracks’ and not obtain the specific supports that they need.

If the value of the seven-volume Report can be summed up in a sentence, it is in its emphasis on the need to genuinely ‘join up’ all stakeholders, so that the bewildering and intimidating system that victims find themselves having to encounter is more of a one-stop shop that centres on their needs via access to diverse specialists. This ethos underpins the focus of the Royal Commission on such key issues as the need to: enhance the Common Risk Assessment Framework; effectively share information among services to assess and manage risk; and support victims via the establishment of Support and Safety Hubs.

That more holistic, ‘big picture’ approach to family violence also underpins the Commission’s recommendations to roll out a specialist family violence court model, so that within five years, every Victorian victim, regardless of their location, should be able to access the same high level of safe, secure, therapeutic legal and non-legal support.

However, the Report’s structure, findings and recommendations do not apply this holistic and specialist understanding to the place of CLCs in the family violence response.

CLC Work is more than duty lawyers

While the Report’s ‘Legal services’ section begins ‘Much of the work of legal services takes place outside courts’, (6) this section is located in Chapter 16 ‘Court-based responses to family violence in Victoria’, and there is no separate section on legal services in any other chapter. (7)

‘Legal services’ goes on to detail various ways in which Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) provides legal help outside the court, but then simply refers to CLCs as providing ‘community legal education and training services’. (8) The Commission states: ‘In many cases Victoria Legal Aid will act for respondents and community legal centres for applicants’, but does not go on to discuss the significance of CLC victim specialisation, instead noting that this is ‘to avoid any conflicts of interest’. (9)

The lack of recognition of CLCs’ more holistic family violence work also runs counter to the Report’s finding:

‘Resourcing should not simply enable services to subsist in the face of growing demand, but should enable them to develop their expertise to contribute to the safety and wellbeing of court users, to find new ways to cooperate with other services, and to be part of the continuous improvement of the courts.’ (10)

Instead, CLCs’ role in the family violence system is reduced to providing duty lawyers. (11) The Commission identifies gaps in service provision and an overwhelmed and under-resourced duty lawyer system. (12) In ‘The way forward’ the Commission accepts that CLCs (and VLA) ‘must be resourced to provide adequate duty lawyer services in all magistrates’ court venues’, and that this funding must be ‘sustained, secure and sufficient’. (13)

Duty lawyer programs are frontline services

However, CLCs are not depicted in the Royal Commission Report as frontline family violence victim specialists similar to crisis centres or refuges. Those latter responses are rightly described as ‘specialist family violence services’, (14) yet CLCs are depicted as ‘services that contribute to family violence response eg legal assistance’. (15) Legal assistance is also described as a ‘mainstream service’. (16)

And yet the descriptions of specialist family violence services as ‘designed to support victims of family violence’ and as ‘focus[ing] on keeping women and their children safe and helping them to recover from the violence they have experienced’ (17) clearly also apply to CLC duty lawyer services.

All of this combines to produce a failure to address CLC urgent duty lawyer funding needs. With respect to specialist family violence services:

‘Although the 2015-16 State Budget allocated a small funding increase to family violence, that funding is for one year only. The Commission recommends that, in addition to maintaining the funding on an ongoing basis, government should ensure that adequate funding is available immediately to stabilise the system and deal with current demand.’ (18)

Although CLCs also received only a small one-year funding boost for 2015-16, there is no equivalent suggestion in the Report, which instead anticipates that the report of the Department of Justice and Regulation review of access to justice in Victoria (due August 2016) ‘will assist in addressing some of the resourcing concerns raised in submissions to this Commission.’ (19)

The result is that Royal Commission Recommendation 11, that the Victorian Government provide additional funding to deal with the crisis in demand – including the $20 million not spent from the Royal Commission budget – does not encompass CLCs.

Other than recommending adequate funding for Aboriginal legal services (Recommendation 146), the only relevant CLC funding recommendation is for the Victorian Government to pursue the expansion of resourcing for duty lawyer services through the Council of Australian Governments Law, Crime and Community Safety Council (Recommendation 69).

The Report leaves CLCs insufficiently funded for duty lawyer help, let alone for more holistic assistance and for the policy and governance work entailed by the Report recommendations and subsequent public Government commitments to co-design of the new family violence system and collaboration with key community family violence stakeholders.

Still in silos

Despite the Royal Commission’s identification of the weaknesses, and indeed dangers, of continuing a silo approach to family violence service provision and policy, CLCs remain siloed in the family violence system. Costings and budget allocations are also calculated via siloed funding streams, and so although CLC family violence lawyers are not court employees, the underlying presumption seems to be that all of the funding we need must come only from a justice pot. CLC family violence statistics are also not clearly identified as an important missing element of current family violence data sets. (20)

The continuing silo approach is most prominent when the proposed Support and Safety Hubs (Recommendations 37-40) are considered. The Commission recommends that these hubs be introduced to ‘perform triage, risk and needs assessment and ensure people are linked in with services at the local level’. (21) This approach is entirely consistent with the recommended rollout of specialist family violence courts and other emphases on specialisation and ‘wrap around’ services for victims.

Yet it is unclear how the hubs will relate to the less formal but de facto ‘hub’ nature of the specialist courts. And despite CLC commitment to undertaking more holistic family violence work when resources permit, legal services are not identified as critical members of the new hubs. The Report instead includes CLCs in other services that are beyond the hubs’ core functions but that ‘may wish to co-locate or locate close to the hub’. (22) That silo is exacerbated by the fact that the hubs are to be located according to Department of Health and Human Services regions, which is not the way in which CLC service provision is generally structured or funded.

Where now for CLC family violence work?

From the Victorian Budget that followed the Royal Commission Report, and which allocated $572 million to a family violence package, CLCs are to receive a one-year funding of $2.5 million. (23) The 2016 Federal Budget allocates $100 million over three years to family violence initiatives. Of that, the national public legal assistance sector – of which CLCs are one part – will receive $10 million, for three years. These allocations do not begin to meet CLC family violence demand.

As this article goes to press, the Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence, Fiona Richardson, has just announced the membership of the new Family Violence Steering Committee. This Committee is the central community agency mechanism in the new family violence governance structure responsible for implementing the Royal Commission recommendations and for policy development (Recommendation 193). The Federation is not a member.

As the peak body for about 30 CLCs providing family violence legal help, the Federation has been a member of similar family violence statewide entities since 2004. Our omission means that 20 CLCs that provide duty lawyer services primarily for FV victims seeking intervention orders in Magistrates’ Courts, and/or more holistic FV-related legal help, together with a further 6 CLCs that run specific family violence projects or provide other family violence legal help, will not have the needs of their clients represented on the Committee.

This lack of representation includes all of the rural CLCs, despite the fact that the needs of rural women and children are a particular focus of the Royal Commission report (see especially Recommendation 182). Our member CLC, Justice Connect Homeless Law, is neither on the Steering Committee nor the associated Family Violence Housing Assistance Implementation Taskforce.

In the absence of Royal Commission recommendations, Victorian CLCs continue to work with the State Government to address the urgent issue of our clients’ unmet legal needs, and to advocate for appropriate recognition of our essential place in a truly integrated family violence response.

Endnotes

1. Smallwood E 2015, Stepping Stones: Legal Barriers to Economic Equality after Family Violence, Women’s Legal Service Victoria, p.16.
2. Pleasence P, Coumarelos C, Forell S and McDonald H M 2014, Reshaping Legal Assistance Services: Building on the Evidence Base: A Discussion Paper, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW.
3. See Patrick Warner and Rachelle Driver in this issue; Smallwood E 2015, Stepping Stones: Legal Barriers to Economic Equality after Family Violence, Women’s Legal Service Victoria; Inner Melbourne Community Legal’s Acting on the Warning Signs project (Zajac B 28 September 2014, The Age, http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/royal-womens-hospital-service-offering-legal-advice-to-domestic-violence-victims-could-expand-20140926-10ml82.html); Eastern CLC’s Mothers And Babies Engaging & Living Safely project (Eastern Community Legal Centre, Submission No 582 to the Royal Commission into Family Violence, pp.2-6); inTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence’s Dandenong Hospital project (Lee J 23 March 2015,The Age, http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/lawyers-in-hospitals-to-help-family-violence-victims-20150323-1m5qce.html).
4. Royal Commission into Family Violence, Volume VII Commissioned Research – Understanding Family Violence Court Proceedings: The Impact of Family Violence on the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria (Dr Karen Gelb); and Chapter 16, pp.129, 144, 160.
5. Atmore C 2016, http://www.powertopersuade.org.au/blog/rocks-and-hard-places-traversing-the-terrain-of-the-community-legal-centre-funding-crisis/13/5/2016.
6. Royal Commission into Family Violence, Chapter 16 p.143.
7. Volumes II and IV of the Report refer to some of the more holistic CLC projects and family violence-related legal help, but this is not linked back to the role of CLCs outside the duty lawyer process.
8. Chapter 16 p.143.
9. Ibid, see also p.142.
10. Chapter 16 p.168.
11. There is one brief reference to the need for resourcing to address more holistic legal needs via two quotes (Chapter 16, pp.149-50), but this is not pursued in the Report.
12. See for example, Chapter 16 pp.123,159.
13. Chapter 16 p.169.
14. See for example, Chapter 41 p.225, Table 41.4.
15. Ibid.
16. Chapter 41 p.227.
17. Chapter 8 p.1.
18. Chapter 8 p. 27.
19. Chapter 16 p.170.
20. See Chapters 3 and 39.
21. Chapter 13 p.245.
22. Chapter 13 p.273.
23. The State Budget includes $25.7 million for Aboriginal specific initiatives, suggesting that Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Victoria, a CLC, will receive some of this funding. Other CLCs, Seniors Rights Victoria and InTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence, will also receive some funding for training and partnership building following the Commission’s Recommendation 139.