‘They should have this in every court’ – Women’s Family Law Support Service Evaluation

Professor Rosalind Croucher, President, Australian Law Reform Commission at the Launch of the Evaluation of the Women’s Family Law Support Service, Parliament House, Sydney, 17 November 2011.

Commitment and connections

Looking at everyone who has come here today for the launch of Dr Lesley Laing’s evaluation of the Women’s Family Law Support Service, one thing really stands out—commitment. You can feel it so strongly in this room. Commitment—to finding solutions and pathways to respond to the problems of family violence.

The other thing that is very striking is a sense of ‘connection’. We are meeting for this occasion in Parliament House, the seat of government for New South Wales. The welcome to country by Donna Ingram on behalf of the Metropolitan Land Council reminds us of the power of this land as land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, its traditional custodians. I pay my respects to their elders, both past and present. I thank you Donna for your welcome and acknowledge Indigneous guests attending today.

Looking at the banner for the NSW Women’s Refuge Movement—a joint partner in the WFLSS with the Family Court, Sydney registry—I noticed another connection. Notice the colours: green, purple and white. Many of you in the room would appreciate the significance of these colours—identified, as they are, with the women’s movement. But for those of you who do not, or for those who know no more than this, it is worthwhile reminding you about the significance of those colours, as it is a very important inheritance. Think of the colours as violet—a particular shade of purple—green and white: ‘V, ‘G’, ‘W’, or rather, ‘G’, ‘V’ and ‘W’. It is a mnemonic. Think back to the 1890s. The women’s suffrage campaign had begun in earnest. It was also just at the time when the aniline dye had been invented—a gorgeous purple. The women loved it. It was the perfect centrepiece for their floral rosettes: ‘Give Votes to Women’—G, V, W. Green, Violet and White. The mnemonic and its symbolism have blurred into purple as the ubiquitous feminist colour. But it is worth remembering its history. The attaining of the suffrage was the beginning of the introduction of many law reforms for and by women. Our sisters of the suffrage movement—the ‘suffragists’ as they called themselves—would be proud to be here with us today.

The Family Violence work of the ALRC

In November last year, the NSW and Commonwealth Attorneys-General launched Family Violence—A National Legal Response. This inquiry (the Family Violence Inquiry) had occupied fully—and intensely—two institutional law reform bodies (the ALRC and NSWLRC), for over a year.

The expectations of all involved in that inquiry were huge. The brief, as one to law reform bodies, necessarily reflected our functions, and, on our own, we could not, nor cannot, possibly meet the expectations of the all those in the Australian community who have been victims of family violence.

Such expectations are captured in this simple plea—one of many submissions received in the course of the inquiry:

Dear Government people,

We women, we mothers, we look at you for the solutions and answers …

In speaking about the Family Violence Inquiry and the complex questions the ALRC and NSWLRC had to navigate, we found lots of stories. Every day—and particularly on the weekends—the newspapers are full of stories involving violence in families, especially ones involving death—or sporting personalities. They are all tragic. They are all horrifying. The messages they send are complex—of the families and the relationships involved as much as of the interest of the press in reporting the stories—and the ‘angle’ that is given in them.

Who can forget the story that led to the conviction this year of Arthur Freeman. In January 2009 he pulled over during the morning rush hour while driving his 4WD car across Melbourne’s busy West Gate Bridge. As stunned motorists looked on, he lifted his young daughter Darcey out of the car then dropped her over the side before driving away with his two sons, Ben, 6, and Jack, 2.

Darcey survived the 17-storey fall, was pulled from the water and moved to the embankment, where police and paramedics attempted to resuscitate her for 45 minutes. She was then airlifted to nearby Royal Children’s Hospital, but died from massive internal injuries in the early afternoon.

Minutes earlier, Arthur had told Peta Barnes, his ex-wife, over the phone: ‘Say goodbye to your children’. The couple, who divorced in 2008 after seven years of marriage, had been involved in a custody dispute. In April this year, Freeman, 37, was convicted of murdering his daughter and he was sentenced to life in prison, with 32 years without parole.

We know that it is not only fathers who kill children. The ancient Greek story of Medea reflects this. When Jason left her for another woman she killed her own children in revenge against him.

The common thread in these stories is that they start with love. Family violence so often starts in love. That is what makes it so difficult. It is not defined by an incident, where so much of law is incident-based. It is arises from a relationship that started in loving.

The women who seek refuge in places such as those provided by the NSW Women’s Refuge Movement, and who end up in the Family Court and at the door of the Women’s Family Law Support Service, most likely identify with such a narrative.

What prompted the Family Violence Inquiry was the report, Time for Action, released in March 2009 by the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children (the National Council).[1]Time for Action focused on ‘strategies and actions for prevention, early intervention, improved service delivery, and justice’.[2] What was particularly alarming was the cost of family violence. In January 2009 KPMG prepared a forward projection of costs to 2021–22 and concluded that an estimated 750,000 Australian women ‘will experience and report violence in 2021–22, costing the Australian economy an estimated $15.6 billion’.[3] It is the staggering size of this which quite clearly demonstrates that family violence is a public concern—and a national responsibility. Compounding factors for women and children include being Indigenous, being of a culturally and linguistically diverse background, suffering an intellectual disability. Compounding factors in the violence—just to mention a few—include alcohol, drugs and poverty.

Our Terms of Reference asked us to consider ‘what, if any, improvements could be made to relevant legal frameworks to protect the safety of women and their children’.[4] The terms of reference were gendered—in their focus on women and children—and men’s groups and individual men made submissions raising obvious concerns in this regard. Time for Action identified as perhaps one of the most important things needed to address family violence in the long term was not to deal with the end product of family violence but to tackle relationships themselves, highlighting the need to build respectful relationships as a foundation for the future. However, in defending a focus on women, the National Council acknowledged that while women as well as men can commit—as well as be victims of—family violence or sexual assault, the research shows that ‘the overwhelming majority of violence and abuse is perpetrated by men against women’.[5] Put very simply, ‘[t]he biggest risk factor for becoming a victim of sexual assault and/or domestic and family violence is being a woman’.[6]

While our focus was on legal frameworks, what we observed through our own researches and the many consultations conducted and submissions received, is how much the problems—and perhaps expectations of solutions—go beyond the brief we received. The inquiry concerned only a narrow slice of the vast range of issues raised by the prevalence of family violence—when women and children encounter the legal system in its various manifestations. It is just the tip of an iceberg.[7]

The power of integrated responses

One of the answers we came up with was that integrated responses are essential to achieve the four policy aims that we identified that relevant legal frameworks in this Inquiry should express: seamlessness, accessibility, fairness and effectiveness:

  1. Seamlessness—to ensure that the legal framework is as seamless as possible from the point of view of those who engage with it.
  2. Accessibility—to facilitate access to legal and other responses to family violence.
  3. Fairness—to ensure that legal responses to family violence are fair and just, holding those who use family violence accountable for their actions and providing protection to victims.
  4. Effectiveness—to facilitate effective interventions and support in circumstances of family violence.

These principles express, at a policy level, the foundation of the recommendations.

Integrated responses offer clear benefits for service delivery to victims, including improving the experience of victims involved in multiple proceedings across different legal frameworks. Integration may also help in overcoming the problem of silos—the legal system has been described by some as operating in ‘silos’, with consumers feeling bounced around from one agency to the next or alternatively falling into the cracks in the system—or on a ‘roundabout’ as described in the AIFS evaluation—particularly where concerns about child protection interventions arise.[8]

Clients with family violence problems may also experience the effects of differences in culture. Professor Marianne Hester, describing the experience in the United Kingdom, refers to the different cultural histories of what she describes as the three ‘planets’ of domestic violence, child protection and child contact.[9] One women’s legal centre attributed the dropping away of complaints of family violence to this problem:

The small numbers of women who do build the courage to report [family violence] then have to battle their way through the legal and court systems. In [our centre’s] experience, these systems have inherent gaps which ultimately fail to protect women. They fall through the cracks and are left feeling vulnerable and re-traumatised; the reason so many women give up.[10]

A number of Australian jurisdictions have either implemented, or are in the process of implementing, various forms of integrated responses. Some of these are quite comprehensive, while others are smaller in scale, including for example, liaison arrangements between police and victim support services.

Victim support is also an important element of integrated responses, because victim support workers play a pivotal role in ‘integrating’ the system for victims by helping them to navigate between the different legal frameworks.

Victims who are supported make better decisions and are more likely to use both the legal system and available government services. In consultations, stakeholders repeatedly emphasised the importance of victim support services as the key mechanism of integration from the point of view of victims.

While court support workers cannot themselves provide legal advice, they may be able to organise lawyers to provide legal advice in a particular case.[11] The Women’s Family Law Support Service provides court support and information at the Sydney and Melbourne registry of the Family Law Courts,[12] and a similar service—the Women’s Information Service Family Court Support—is provided in South Australia.

Victim support is a key aspect of the Victorian specialised family violence courts, discussed in Chapter 32 of our report, Family Violence—A National Legal Response. An on-site victim support worker is available during the court days allocated to family violence hearings.

The importance of victim support has also been recognised in the United Kingdom’s national strategy for reducing family violence, which includes as a core element the funding of Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAs) and Independent Sexual Violence Advisors (ISVAs). The role of these advisers is to ‘help victims navigate their way through various systems; for example, the criminal justice system … the civil court system, and other systems such as housing, health, and education’.[13] They are especially associated with the specialised family violence courts in the United Kingdom and Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences (MARACs), which provide multi-agency responses to very high-risk victims.

In 2009, an independent evaluation of IDVAs in the United Kingdom found:

The IDVA role offers a unique opportunity to provide independent, objective advice to victims about their options, and one that is not duplicated by any other worker. IDVAs navigate multiple systems and are crucial contributors to multi-agency initiatives, especially MARACs. Their specialist skills and ability to provide both individual and institutional advocacy are very highly valued.[14]

The evaluation found strong support for the work of the advisers in court support, citing one victim as follows:

To have that support, it just gives you the strength to go and give evidence. I could have backed out many times because I was afraid to stand up and go against my ex-husband but having [the Adviser] there, she gave me the strength to go on with it. It is a hard thing to do, but having someone there to talk to you and listen to you, to reassure you everything will be ok, it did really help.[15]

The evaluation also noted that partner agencies

were quick to comment on the importance of providing support to victims, as they were sympathetic to the stress involved in a court case. In fact, IDVA support was viewed as a necessary precursor to having successful court outcomes; for example, reducing retraction, giving better evidence, and obtaining convictions.[16]

There was significant support expressed for the proposal that court support services for victims of family violence should be available at federal family courts.[17] A number of stakeholders noted that funding would be necessary to support such a service.[18] FVPLS Victoria suggested that, in relation to specialised support services in federal family courts for Indigenous women, this could be implemented through the FVPLS program or through a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s legal service.[19]

The Women’s Family Law Support Service

All of this brings me to the reason we are here today—to ‘launch’ Dr Lesley Laing’s evaluation of this service.

What is particularly striking about the service is that it is a joint project of the Sydney Registry of the Family Courts and the NSW Women’s refuge Movement. Through my involvement in two family violence inquiries and, through them, the Family Law Reference Group, as well as the ALRC’s ex officio role on the Family Law Council I have been struck by the commitment of the courts—and particularly the Chief Justice of the Family Court and the Chief Federal Magistrate—to improving the response of the court to family violence, to the extent that it arises within their jurisdictions.

The support role offered by the WFLSS is precisely the kind of initiative that demonstrates such commitment. The NSW Women’s Refuge Movement is also a crucial element in the overall response to improving safety for victims of family violence—a key commitment of both state and federal governments.

The evaluation by Dr Lesley Laing is an important aspect of providing the evidence base that underpins the case for continuation of services of the kind provided by WFLSS. It complements a range of other work. First, the Family Court Violence Review by Professor Richard Chisholm, former Justice of the Family Court of Australia, of the practices, procedures and laws that apply in the federal family law courts in the context of family violence.[20] Secondly, the Family Law Council provided an advice to the Attorney-General on the impact of family violence on children and on parenting, which was also released at the same time as the Chisholm Review.[21] Thirdly, at about the same time, the Australian Institute of Family Studies released its Evaluation of the 2006 Family Law Reforms,[22] which provided empirical data about the impact of the 2006 changes to the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth). Fourthly, in July 2010, another major research project into family violence and family law in Australia was released, focusing on the impact of the changes made to the Family Law Act in 2006.[23] Dr Laing’s work adds another important contribution to the evidence base.

Dr Laing’s evaluation included many personal accounts. She let the women speak for themselves. I found this particularly powerful in conveying the message of the value of the service to the women included in the sample.

The power of the personal narrative was also something that struck me during the course of the family violence inquiry—like the simple plea that I referred to above. During the inquiry Hilary Astor (NSWLRC Commissioner) and I heard many such stories.

If I were to single out a key word from reading Dr Laing’s evaluation, it is surely ‘empathy’—‘like having my mum really’.

There are times when circumstances in life can overwhelm you—no matter how educated or how well off you may be. It’s moments like those when having someone who can ‘be there’ for you—to put into words the questions that stick in your head and heart and you are unable to give voice to them for yourself—that’s when empathetic support is everything. And in the context of the dynamics of family violence, which is coercive, controlling conduct that is intended to make you fearful, having someone there who knows the court and understands your situation can go a long way to neutralising the power that that fear-inducing conduct has over you.

Women benefit. Children benefit. The family courts benefit. And the ex-partners ultimately benefit through the smoother resolution of the matters that are before the court.

The WFLSS gives women the confidence they need to navigate the court process of disentangling their lives from their past relationship. It lets them know they are not alone.

Congratulations to Dr Laing for showing the value of the WFLSS through women’s own words. Congratulations to the Women’s Refuge Movement and to the Court in this excellent initiative. You have given women a voice.

‘Launch’ is not quite the right word; perhaps ‘birthing’ is more appropriate for the context, which makes me a midwife, rather than a ‘launcher’. So, in this guise I duly announce the ‘birth’ of Dr Laing’s work. And, regarding the Women’s Family Law Support Service, they should have this in every court!

[1] National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, Time for Action: The National Council’s Plan for Australia to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, 2009–2021 (2009).

[2] Ibid, 10.

[3] The National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, Background Paper to Time for Action: The National Council’s Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, 2009–2021 (2009), 43; KPMG, The Cost of Violence against Women and their Children Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs on behalf of the National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children (2009).

[4] The Terms of Reference for this Inquiry are set out at the front of this Consultation Paper.

[5] The National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, Background Paper to Time for Action: The National Council’s Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, 2009–2021 (2009), 25.

[6] Ibid, 26.

[7] As commented by the Family Law Council in its December 2009 advice: Family Law Council, Improving Responses to Family Violence in the Family Law System: An Advice on the Intersection of Family Violence and Family Law Issues (2009), 7.

[8] Australian Institute of Family Studies, Evaluation of the 2006 Family Law Reforms (2009), [4], 21. This separation of practice or silos was reflected, eg, in one submission in this Inquiry, where different committees of the one Law Society came to strongly divergent conclusions with respect to a number of matters raised in the Consultation Paper: Law Society of New South Wales, Submission FV 205, 30 June 2010.

[9] M Hester, ‘Commentary on H Douglas and T Walsh, “Mothers, Domestic Violence and Child Protection”’ (2010) 16 Violence Against Women 516, 516–517.

[10] Hunter Women’s Centre, Submission FV 79, 1 June 2010.

[11] Legal Aid NSW, Women’s Domestic Violence Court Assistance Schemes <www.legalaid.nsw.gov.au/
asp/index.asp?pgid=728> at 2 February 2010.

[12] Richard Chisholm noted in his 2009 report that this service had proved particularly invaluable to victims of family violence: R Chisholm, Family Courts Violence Review (2009), 151, fn 161.

[13] A Robinson, Evaluation of Independent Sexual Violence Advisors (ISVAs) and Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAs) (2009), prepared for the Home Office (UK), 15.

[14] Ibid, 4.

[15] Ibid, 16.

[16] Ibid.

[17] National Association of Services Against Sexual Violence, Submission FV 195, 25 June 2010; Queensland Law Society, Submission FV 178, 25 June 2010; Berry Street Inc, Submission FV 163, 25 June 2010; Domestic Violence Victoria, Federation of Community Legal Centres Victoria, Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria, Victorian Women with Disabilities Network, Submission FV 146, 24 June 2010; Commissioner for Victims’ Rights (South Australia), Submission FV 111, 9 June 2010.

[18] Berry Street Inc, Submission FV 163, 25 June 2010; Justice for Children, Submission FV 148, 24 June 2010.

[19] Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service Victoria, Submission FV 173, 25 June 2010.

[20] Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department, Family Courts Violence Review (2009). The review was completed at the end of November 2009, and released on 28 January 2010.

[21] Family Law Council, Improving Responses to Family Violence in the Family Law System: An Advice on the Intersection of Family Violence and Family Law Issues (2009).

[22] Australian Institute of Family Studies, Evaluation of the 2006 Family Law Reforms (2009); Australian Institute of Family Studies, Evaluation of the 2006 Family Law Reforms: Summary Report (2009).

[23] D Bagshaw, T Brown et al, Family Violence and Family Law in Australia: The Experiences and Views of Children and Adults From Families Who Separated Post-1995- and Post-2006, April 2010, (released July 2010).