By Pasanna Mutha-Merennege
With the appointment of Rosie Batty and Ken Lay to a newly-formed advisory panel on violence against women, Tony Abbott now has two exceptional advocates on hand to advise him on what the government needs to do to tackle the national epidemic of family violence.
The prime minister has announced that in 2015, addressing violence against women will be a top priority for Coag (Council of Australian governments) and urged it to act quickly on reaching a nationwide consensus on enforcing domestic violence orders.
“Coag will be asked to act urgently this year to finally agree on a national domestic violence order scheme so that a domestic violence order in one jurisdiction holds in another jurisdiction,” Abbott said.
“We all know that so many families do flee from city to city, from state to state to avoid violence, and if they’re fleeing violence, the violence should not be allowed to follow them.”
The Commonwealth, states and territories have a rare opportunity to tackle family violence as a national issue, but their challenge will be this: the issues that cross borders do not just relate to intervention orders.
Family law and child protection are two critical aspects of the family violence epidemic that are not often raised in public discussion of the issue, yet they are as important, if not more so, in keeping children safe from a violent parent. The organisations that work at the intersection of these areas of law are struggling to meet demand and at the same time facing great uncertainty around continued funding.
In 2010, the Australian Law Reform Commission released its report, Family Violence – A National Legal Response. Its recommendations were wide ranging and crossed criminal, family violence, family law and child protection jurisdictions, in the recognition that to keep women and children safe, integrated and effective responses were needed across all of these areas of law. This was one of the ALRC’s recommendations:
The Australian, state and territory governments should prioritise the provision of, and access to, legal services for victims of family violence, including enhanced support for victims in high risk and vulnerable groups.
Community legal centres, such as Women’s Legal Service Victoria, are uniquely placed to bridge the gap between family law, child protection and family violence law. We work at the coal face assisting marginalised people navigate the complexities of the legal system. Yet despite the ALRC’s recommendation from five years ago, community legal centres are struggling to keep their doors open and meet the overwhelming demand from this national epidemic. Aboriginal family violence prevention legal services are facing near extinction and regional community legal centres are closing their doors in family violence “hot spots” in Victoria.
Legal aid assistance for victims of family violence is slowly eroding away. Increasing numbers of marginalised women are falling through the cracks, finding themselves unrepresented in family law and intervention order hearings. Real funding of state legal aid commissions by the federal government fell from 49% in 1997 to 32% of total funding in 2010.
Any serious response to violence against women must first address these funding shortfalls.
Will 2015 be a year in which commonwealth, state and territory governments listen to advocates such as Batty – who has already called for increased funding – and Lay and act on their recommendations? We’re yet to see.