Research suggests there are significant barriers between refugees and migrants and the Australian legal system, especially when it comes to family disputes. Victoria Legal Aid is working to change this.
Domestic violence occurs in most societies, but immigrant and refugee families are especially vulnerable to it.
Isolation, trauma from past experiences and lack of the host country’s language are some of the factors preventing families from seeking assistance from authorities.
“Some of the communities that we’ve worked with are generally law avoidant,” says Leane Sinclair, the family violence program manager at Victoria Legal Aid.
“The state systems in the countries which they come from are intimidating, and so therefore they will avoid the justice system, the courts system, lawyers, police and they will use their own family structures to resolve their disputes.”
“What we’re trying to do its to show how these organisations can provide assistance to them, in being able to help resolve their disputes,” says Ms Sinclair.
The Victoria Legal Aid solicitor has been travelling with co-worker Alison Foster around the state to train welfare groups, community organisations and social workers to educate refugees around family law; this month the team were in Mildura.
Ms Sinclair says there is still a lot of confusion about the role of police in family violence and child protection disputes.
“In some countries the police have a very small role or no role at all in responding to family violence incidents – a dispute between a husband and wife is seen as a domestic dispute and not something that the police would ever intervene in.”
“If someone was injured seriously, they might respond, but the police wouldn’t act on assessing risk in the way they do in Victoria,” she says,
Other common misunderstandings are cultural, says Ms Sinclair, for instance there is a tendency for some communities to leave children as young as seven in charge of smaller children at home, an act that is frowned upon by Victorian child protection authorities.
Combating the confusion
To try to reverse the misunderstandings, Victoria Legal Aid uses fictitious stories about family situations to compare how the law would intervene in Australia as opposed to Afghanistan, Burma, the Congo or another country of origin.
“We work with these smaller groups to settle some of the myths, to be able to explain the law,” says Ms Sinclair.
“But then we also follow that up to be able to show what services are around within the community, and by doing that we hope that communities which encounter problems will at least know what door they can go through.”
The program, titled Settled and Safe, was initially funded by the Legal Services Board and in this capacity comes to a close this month.
But Ms Sinclair says it will continue operating through Victoria Legal Aid in Ringwood and Dandenong.