A report prepared nine months after a Domestic Violence Unit (DVU) was launched by Legal Aid NSW has shown just how critical specialised services are for vulnerable people who are victims of domestic and family violence (DFV).
At the time of the evaluation, the DVU ran two legal advice clinics and staffs a legal advice line via telephone, email and webcam. It also offered duty lawyer services from four different local courts and social work support services, and it provided grants of legal aid. Today the DVU team services additional locations, including in family law registries as part of the national Family Advocacy and Support Service that launched in 2017.
Legal Aid currently operates a total of three local units across the state, working other legal and human services to provide accessible services to people experiencing DFV.
This week an evaluation report of the program was published by the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW. The findings of the report indicated a quarter of clients who had been supported by the DVU received multiple types of services, which included assistance of a non-legal nature.
“The DVU has the aim of triaging clients to receive appropriate types and intensity of service according to their specific needs and capability,” the report said.
However, the evaluation also reflected stakeholder feedback that expressed concern about the capacity for the under-resourced DVU to meet the demand for services. The report recommended that expansion of the unit was a key matter to negotiate for the future.
“Stakeholder feedback clearly indicated that the DVU team was already stretched and also noted the challenge of potential ‘burnout’ resulting from working in a service area where ‘vicarious trauma’ can be a threat.”
The report added that DVU processes to assess a client’s risk of experiencing further violence and provide safety planning, as needed, reduced the risk that vulnerable clients faced. It went on to say that by promoting a “trauma-informed approach to service delivery”, DVU stakeholders saw a range of benefits for clients, such as timely access to services, early intervention, as well as safer, more supported and empowering experience for victims.
The evaluation also recognised a consistent view among stakeholders that the Legal Aid NSW DVU “filled legal service gaps” for those who tended to fall through the gaps in the system. This included those who were ineligible for legal aid grants as both a ‘primary victim’ and defendant.
Among those that accessed Legal Aid NSW’s DVU program were disadvantaged people, predominantly women, who were experiencing DFV. Over 69 per cent of DVU clients had dependants, with more than half speaking a main language other than English. The report also showed that two-thirds of clients were not employed and over 63 per cent were recipients of government benefits.
“The DVU was also seen as filling gaps in social work support and assistance to people experiencing DFV, often complementing the court support roles of the Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Services (WDVCASs),” the report said.
The Law and Justice Foundation of NSW was commissioned to measure the impact of the Legal Aid program that was set up in January 2016. The program was measured against a range of factors, including client outcomes and case management. The evaluation also addressed service accessibility, as well as appropriate and proportionate assistance rendered to DV victims.
Among the challenges highlighted by the report, was the desire for a more formal referral and information-sharing processes. The evaluation also underscored the need for safe rooms in NSW courts, ideally to be located at the front of the court buildings and internally accessible to separate interview rooms for DVU solicitors.
“Most of the suggested improvements centred around facilitating more streamlined and more efficient collaborative working between the DVU and their partners,” the report said.
“These suggestions included clearer or more ongoing communication between partners to ensure shared understanding regarding referral processes, information sharing, conflicts of interests, holistic service co-ordination, eligibility for legal aid grants, and the distinct yet complementary roles of partners, particularly those of the DVU and WDVCAS.”