For more than 40 years, it has been recognised that women will often experience unique legal issues throughout their lifetime due to gender inequality, gender-based violence, and systemic gendered discrimination. To address this, Women’s Legal Services have been developed specifically to meet women’s legal needs and provide women with access to legal assistance services that are delivered in a safe, trauma-informed, and supported way. Women’s Legal Services are a distinct sector within the legal assistance system, with aligned strategic priorities, service delivery models, and specialist communities of practice.
A strong, sustainable Women’s Legal sector can significantly enhance gender equality, increase access to justice, and ensure women and children have the legal assistance and support they need to live safely and free from domestic, family, and sexual violence. Women’s Legal Services are the only community legal centres with a uniquely dedicated focus on gender equality and contributing to structural change to improve outcomes for women. Well-resourced Women’s Legal Services also have a significant impact on the communities in which they work, leading to healthier, safer, and more equitable communities, and intervene early to reduce reliance on non-legal supports, which ultimately results in a significant reduction in government expenditure.
The role of specialist legal assistance for women was recognised in the allocation of funds through the ‘vulnerable women’ funding stream of the National Legal Assistance Partnership (‘NLAP’) in the 2021-22 Federal Budget. The administration of these funds was handled by the states and territories and as a result only 46.5 per cent of this funding was received by Women’s Legal Services. This means in most jurisdictions across Australia, there has not been a significant uplift in specialist services available to women. The funding allocated has not been sufficient to meet the significant levels of unmet and hidden legal need of women in the community.
Women’s Legal Services are forced to turn away thousands of women each year who would be eligible for their services and are otherwise unable to reach many women who need their services, many of whom are experiencing domestic, family, and sexual violence and would uniquely benefit from specialist, gender-led assistance. New data collected by the 13 Women’s Legal Services nationally has found that 1,018 attempts to receive assistance were turned away during a 5-day period, which means we can estimate that more than 52,000 will be turned away by Women’s Legal Services per year.
Women’s Legal Services continue to struggle with significant resourcing and capacity issues, including difficulties with recruitment and retention of staff, difficulties in responding to significant consultation demands from government and stakeholders on policy and law reform initiatives, lack of infrastructure to support a modern, safe, effective and efficient workplace, limits on the measures that can be implemented to enhance staff wellbeing, and limits on the support services that can be provided to give women access to integrated, client-centred, and trauma-informed services that would best meet their needs.
The NLAP is the key source of funding for Women’s Legal Services. It is vitally important that this Independent Review considers the unique value of trauma-informed and gender-led services for women, particularly victim-survivors of domestic, family, and sexual violence, and recommends that Women’s Legal Services are provided with significant additional and sustainable funding.
Women’s Legal Services are on the frontline assisting women who are deeply traumatised, and many of the women assisted by our services are at risk of extreme violence or death. Through this Review, recommendations for additional funding for Women’s Legal Services so that we can increase capacity to assist more women will save lives.
It is a key priority for Women’s Legal Services to have strong national leadership through Women’s Legal Services Australia (‘WLSA’). WLSA provides a dedicated national voice in the legal assistance sector on policy, law reform, and structural change to achieve gender equality and women’s safety and justice. WLSA also provides support and coordination for Women’s Legal Services to work collaboratively as a national network and to collectively build capacity to enhance services. Additional funding is needed for WLSA to continue to support and coordinate the Women’s Legal sector and to strengthen the collective impact of services nationally.
We make the following recommendations for the Independent Review to ensure that the NLAP prioritises women and ensures that more women can access legal assistance; provides a framework for government funding arrangements that enable Women’s Legal Services to best meet the needs of women; provides significant and sustainable funding for Women’s Legal Services to increase their impact, create better outcomes for women, and further promote gender equality; and supports a strong and sustainable peak body for Women’s Legal Services to have a national voice and build capacity.
1. Prioritise gender equality and ending violence against women and children:
a. Recognise women as a national priority client group.
b. A dedicated funding stream for Women’s Legal Services to ensure funding for women reaches its intended recipients, victim-survivors of gendered violence have access to specialist, client-centred, integrated and trauma-informed services, and there is a strong and sustainable Women’s Legal sector dedicated to enhancing gender equality and ending gendered violence.
2. Create a modern framework for efficient and effective government funding arrangements for Women’s Legal Services, including:
a. Increased direction from the Commonwealth Government about allocation and administration of funding to meet Commonwealth budget commitments.
b. Stronger accountability measures to ensure funding must be allocated and administered in a timely and efficient manner.
c. Information-sharing obligations between the Commonwealth Government and state and territory governments about allocation and administration of funding to facilitate greater transparency.
d. Autonomy and flexibility for funding recipients to tailor service delivery to the specific needs of women and to achieve better outcomes for women.
e. Reduction in the administrative burden on services through streamlined reporting.
f. Review of funding arrangements for the Family Advocacy Support Service and expansion of the Domestic Violence Unit/Health Justice Partnership program.
3. Deliver additional and sustainable funding for Women’s Legal Services to ensure:
a. Women’s Legal Services can meet an increased proportion of unmet legal need and hidden legal need.
b. Women’s Legal Services can expand areas of legal practice to meet emerging needs in innovative ways.
c. Women’s Legal Services can continue providing integrated, client-centred, and trauma-informed services that meet the legal and support needs of women.
d. Women’s Legal Services have the infrastructure and operations for modern, client-centred, and trauma-informed workplaces.
e. Women’s Legal Services have a strong and sustainable workforce.
f. Women’s Legal Services can increase access for women in regional, remote, and rural areas.
g. Women’s Legal Services have capacity to inform and influence policy and law reform work to enhance women’s equality, justice and safety, and have capacity to contribute to WLSA’s national policy and law reform work.
4. Dedicate funding for Women’s Legal Services Australia to operate a strong and sustainable national peak body for Women’s Legal Services.