The rhetoric and the reality: The cuts to family law support services

By Marcia Neave AO and Nicky Bromberg|11 March 2020

Following the murder of Hannah Clarke and her children, we heard from the PM and politicians in parliament about the need to turn “words into actions and changes that make a real difference for women and children”. Despite the rhetoric, ongoing annual funding of $130,000 is denied to Court Network’s Family Court Service, write Marcia Neave AO and Nicky Bromberg.

Court Network is a not-for-profit organisation that was established in 1984. It operates across jurisdictions, being one of the only services to do so. Our free, non-legal court support service is delivered by over 350 volunteers who are trained to provide tailored support, information and referral services on an impartial and non-judgemental basis to all persons, including applicants, respondents, victims, witnesses, defendants, and their families and friends who attend court with them.

Since 1990 Court Network volunteers (Networkers) have helped people in the Family Law proceedings. Networkers are highly trained and committed. It’s not uncommon for Networkers to volunteer with Court Network for more than 10 or 20 years, and in a few instances for more than 30 years.

As with all Australians, we at Court Network, are sickened by relentless scourge of family violence in our society. Our perspective is sharper because Networkers have supported many vulnerable women and their families, both through referral in the “secure room” in the Family Court and through outreach. Our brief is to support all court users and as such, on many occasions, we also support men who use violence.

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Family Court proceedings are often a crucible for anxiety, anger and a sense of powerlessness. Often, they include a narrative of family violence which can be exacerbated at this stressful time. Daily we support litigants, represented and unrepresented, men and women, who are greatly distressed and often angry and voiceless. Our volunteers are trained to identify risk to their safety and the risk they may pose to others and themselves and refer them to specialist agencies.

We also help them navigate through often intimidating court processes. Our work contributes in no small way to the efficient functioning of the court and the safety and wellbeing of court users. We work collaboratively with other agencies including security, men’s and women’s family violence services and legal services who often cannot themselves cope with the demand they face daily. We are a unique court service that offers practical help alongside humanity and kindness to court users at a time of great stress and are regularly told by court users and court services that our service made a difference to their capacity to continue on and to function efficiently.

Through reaching out to people who come to court we support and seek solutions for men and women who despite years of ongoing family conflict have never engaged with specialist family violence specialist services. Without Court Network on many occasions they would have slipped through the net. We cannot forget that other women and children have been murdered shortly after or during Family Court proceedings.

We currently have 350 highly trained and dedicated volunteers who dedicate their time to the Family Court and other courts in Victoria. They believe passionately that Court Network provides an essential and valuable service and this is backed up by anecdotal and empirical evidence.

As of June this year, we will be forced to cease our service in the Family Court because we cannot secure annual funding of $130,000 from either the federal government or the Family Court of Australia. This is a service valued by KPMG in 2013 as providing a benefit of $3.20 to every $1 funded in Victoria.

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On behalf of vulnerable court users, we implore the federal government and the Family Court of Australia to provide the very modest amount of funding necessary for Court Network to continue service in the Family Court beyond June 2020.

Marcia Neave AO is the president of the Court Network and former chair of Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence. Nicky Bromberg is the networker and board member of the Court Network.

The rhetoric and the reality: The cuts to family law support services
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