Women’s Legal Services Australia recently made a submission to the Attorney-General’s Department in response to its exposure draft of the Family Law Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2023 and accompanying Consultation Paper. This submission was heavily informed by all 13 Women’s Legal Services across Australia which assist over 25,000 women per year nationally and see first-hand the impact of family violence on women’s economic wellbeing, housing security, and health, which is often exacerbated by the unfair or unjust distribution of property post-separation.
Women who access Women’s Legal Services often tell us they are fearful of seeking the property they are entitled to post-separation due to possible repercussions, including escalating violence, and this means they do not have the financial resources to appropriately care for themselves or their children and to recover from violence. Similarly, we know women often do not leave violent relationships because of the economic impacts, they are often forced to choose between violence or poverty, and reform to the Family Law Act to improve the property decision-making process can contribute to addressing this.
Making family violence a specific consideration in property disputes is an important step towards creating a family law system that better supports victim-survivors of family violence to leave violent relationships and to recover safely with their children. Reform to the Family Law Act can significantly enhance women’s economic wellbeing by ensuring that family violence is a factor taken into consideration in property settlements, both the impact on contributions to the asset pool and the current and future needs of victim-survivors.
WLSA has developed the following principles which should guide decision-makers in any reforms to the family law system:
1. Ensuring safety for children and adult victim-survivors who are predominantly women by putting safety and risk at the centre of all practice and decision-making.
2. Promoting accessibility and engagement, including addressing issues of cultural competency and accessibility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, culturally and linguistically diverse and LGBTQIA+ people and communities and people with a disability, reducing delay, and availability of legal assistance.
3. Fairness and recognition of diversity, including acknowledging and responding to structural inequalities and bias in the family law system.
While welcoming the proposed reforms in the Exposure Draft and providing recommendations for these reforms to be strengthened, we also reiterate the importance of properly resourcing the family law system. More work is required to ensure all professionals within the family law system are family violence informed, trauma-informed, culturally safe, child rights focused, disability aware and LGBTIQA+ aware. This requires regular access to meaningful training developed and delivered by subject matter and lived-experience experts that is regularly independently evaluated for its effectiveness, including evidence of improvements in the practice of professionals working in the family law system.
There must also be more funding particularly for Independent Children’s Lawyers, several Indigenous Liaison Officers in each family court registry and greater access to family violence-informed, culturally safe legal assistance services. It is also important to properly resource the front end of the family law system as a way of preventing and limiting systems abuse. This includes through greater access to family violence informed, trauma informed, culturally safe, child focused, lawyer-assisted family dispute resolution and early judicial determination of family violence.
Women’s Legal Services are on the frontlines assisting women engaging in the family law system and the majority of our clients have experienced or are still experiencing family violence. This means that we have unique insights into the impact of the family law system on women experiencing family violence. Women’s Legal Services need more funding to assist women to navigate the family law system, and we need additional resources to be able to share the experiences of our clients and professionals engaged in the family law system to make the case for change.