Data from new research by the Women’s Legal Service Victoria (WLS) was recently released to coincide with International Women’s Day, examining the experience of vulnerable women going through the family courts to settle small property claims. The vast majority (87%) of respondent women had experienced family violence, including suffering economic abuse by their former partners. The results of the research have shed more light on serious flaws in the system and have led the WLS to now recommend proposals for family law reform to help women move past the trauma of abusive relationships.
The new WLS research demonstrates that a major problem with the current system is its ‘one size fits all’ operation. In contrast to property settlements for couples where abuse is not a factor, the women surveyed for this research generally had small property claims, on average around $70,000. But even such “relatively modest sums” clearly make a critical difference to women’s lives when they are living in circumstances of poverty.
“[There’s] no cheap or efficient way of dealing with smaller matters in the current system,” said Helen Matthews, director of policy at WLS. And this lack of fast, affordable ways to resolve family law disputes is seeing vulnerable women “simply walk away from their entitlement to a fair division of property when relationships end”.
The complexity of the law and legal processes makes navigating the system extremely difficult for vulnerable women, especially if they are self-representing. Enforcing their rights is a many-step process and issues such as dividing superannuation are highly complicated, leading many women to abandon pursuit of their fair share.
If they do attempt to pursue their rightful ownership of assets, they can often be confronted with partners causing endless delays which exacerbate the women’s financial hardship. The research found that two thirds of respondents had found themselves facing delays “because their ex-partners were unwilling to make full and frank disclosures of their financial position”.
Partners would often refuse to negotiate, making court necessary. On the other hand, when former abusers would agree to negotiate, unless the women were able to obtain third party help, they faced further trauma through having to personally continue to deal with their abuser.
The report found that “ex-partners would frequently use the court system, and their often better financial position, to continue to perpetrate abuse on their former partners”. And yet, family violence is only rarely taken into account in determining property settlements, researchers found, despite the fact that economic abuse often leaves women with limited resources.
The WLS report has now recommended that the Federal Government amend the Family Law Act to allow courts to consider the effects of family violence when deciding property division and financial settlements.
The new research is expected to feed into the current debate over family law reform and how the family law system can be improved for vulnerable people. In last year’s Federal Budget the Government funded the ALRC to conduct a comprehensive review of the family law system and the Family Law Act. And the ALRC Issues Paper has just been released as part of that review, inviting public submissions regarding their experiences of the family law system, to form part of the ALRC’s family law reform review.
The key recommendations for family law reform stemming from the WLS research include:
- The need to strengthen rules around mandatory financial disclosures
- The need to make it easier to access information about a former partner’s superannuation
- The need to ensure courts make orders to deal with joint debts
- The need to ensure courts take family violence into account when determining property settlements
It’s simply unacceptable that women who have suffered abuse are falling between the cracks when it comes to property settlements. Their access to justice must be ensured through better-designed court processes.
If you need assistance with a family law matter, please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Family Law on (02) 6223 2400. Cristina also provides free advice through the Women’s Legal Centre (ACT).
Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Legal Services.