Equality before the law

The ALRC took the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as its starting point.

The ALRC inquiry found the legal system failed women in five key areas by:

  • leaving them in the dark—women often have difficulty finding relevant information;
  • brutalising the victim—even when women are aware of their rights, they often find they are not taken seriously;
  • poor professional advice—women described being given wrong or misleading advice and being lied to, intimidated and threatened by their solicitors;
  • prohibitive legal costs—because women are generally poorer than men, cost is a greater barrier to seeking help;
  • barriers to access—child care arrangements, physically intimidating court waiting areas and inappropriate courtroom procedures have created barriers to access, especially for women with special needs, such as Indigenous women and non-English speaking women.

Key recommendations

ALRC Report 67

In its interim report, the ALRC recommended the immediate establishment of a National Women’s Justice Program (NWJP) to address women’s needs for access to justice. Key elements of the suggested program were:

  • measures to increase women’s access to legal representation in court proceedings;
  • an additional women’s legal service in each State and Territory;
  • legal resource and advocacy centres for Indigenous women as pilot programs for an initial three-year period;
  • strategies by legal aid commissions, women’s legal services and other funded community legal services to ensure that they responded to the needs of women from non-English speaking backgrounds;
  • limited additional funding to existing services in identified high-need areas to increase non-English speaking women’s access to justice;
  • a toll-free telephone legal advice and referral service for all women in Australia;
  • community legal education;
  • test case funding;
  • promotion and coordination of research and data collection;
  • implementation of the ALRC’s recommendations in Multiculturalism and the Law (ALRC Report 57);
  • initiatives to address the needs of women attending courts and tribunals;
  • court charters in federal courts and tribunals and other courts exercising federal jurisdiction to promote a better client focus in the delivery of court services, with special attention to the needs of women and child carers.

An Equality Act should be introduced, establishing national standards for the administration of justice, which enshrine the principle of equality. The Act would be of symbolic value and provide a benchmark against which government action could be judged. It would be used by courts in interpreting issues arising in cases before them. It would not provide a cause of action in individual private cases.

The Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act should be strengthened, and all aspects of the law and legal system should be reviewed to ensure women’s equality.

A number of recommendations were made to deal with violence against women, including a change in Family Court practices to take account of the experience of violence in family relationships.

Violence against women should also be taken into account in developing and applying immigration law and procedures. Guidelines should be developed for refugee decision makers on the appropriate treatment of cases involving violence against women.

For gender bias in the law to be corrected and lawyers to become more responsive to women’s needs, the legal profession must be trained to understand the issues. Education of lawyers in law schools should include training on women’s experience and interests.

Women should be consulted in the drafting of the Model Criminal Code.

A Violence Against Women Unit should be established within the human rights area of the federal Attorney-General’s Department.

ALRC Report 69

A list of recommendations is included in Part I and Part II of the final report.