‘I would have died without that support’: Victoria cuts vital court funding
In light of recent family violence tragedies, a decision to cut funding for crucial support is “short-sighted”, former royal commission judge Marcia Neave told Lawyers Weekly.
Almost 20 volunteers with the Court Network will no longer have the resources to assist domestic violence victims in the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court after $130,000 was cut from Victorian Legal Aid and assistance rejected by the federal government.
The cuts will have a “devastating” impact on the most “vulnerable and disadvantaged” in Melbourne and Dandenong. To put that into perspective, Court Network volunteers in 2019 assisted over 2,480 courts users in Victorian family courts. They no longer will.
“We get letters from people who have been helped. One person said they would have died without that support,” said Ms Neave, the former commissioner for the inquiry into family violence in Victoria and president of the Court Network board. “The judges also say it’s very helpful if you have someone who is distressed and needs the support.”
Established in 1980, and placed in family courts in 1990, Court Network provided free, non-legal support. Prior to being cut in Queensland last year, the network helped more than 205,000 court users. Across 37 locations in Victoria and Queensland, volunteers contributed collectively at least 129,600 hours, equivalent of 65 full-time positions.
Based on KPMG’s cost-benefit analysis of Court Network services in 2013, volunteers, as a minimum, returned benefits of $3.20 for every $1 funded in Victoria.
One court user said that what the team does in court cannot have a price tag on it: “They keep women and men informed and help navigate a very confusing court system and mostly are there to support women and men through a very traumatic experience.”
Volunteers, who are very carefully trained, walk the floors and look out for people who seem distressed or unsure. They can accompany people in court, often by the request of a judge, and can take people into a secure room if it is a family violence issue.
Court Network volunteers can also link distressed people with other services and are not confined to people who are victims, also helping the accused and families.
“The people on the court staff and, on occasion, even people like security officers, find them really helpful because they are busy, they are dealing with a whole lot of people and they can get a Court Network volunteer over to respond,” Ms Neave said.
In May 2015, the Attorney-General’s Department advised the Court Network that there was a slash on funding due to the commencement of an agreement on Legal Assistance Services. Victorian Legal Aid then stepped in to resume the funding, but it is “no longer in a position to continue the previous informal funding arrangement” beyond June.
“We approached various people, including the federal Attorney-General, and also Josh Frydenberg, and we did this some time ago, but really their response is ‘it’s nothing to do with us’. But that, of course, ignores the fact that this service is being provided from the Federal Courts and there are strains on legal aid,” said Ms Neave.
“We would like for the Commonwealth government to reconsider its decision to ensure that, for a very small amount of money, people get the support they need in courts.”
The cut to family courts will be felt the most, particularly considering recent tragedies – like the murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children by her former partner.
“A lot of people have raised the issue of violence,” Ms Neave said. “Of course, we are not just there to deal with issues of family violence but because people are upset, we know it’s a time where violence can escalate. It is a very dangerous time for women.”
“[When people who haven’t seen their children] finally get back to court, they are often angry and distressed and being able to talk them down is really, really important. Our networkers have good skills in that area, that’s what they are trained to do. It’s a human face and having something that isn’t just an impersonal system is very important.”
President of the Victorian Bar Dr Matthew Collins AM QC said he recently came to see the pressures on the justice system and that legal aid is “crucially underfunded”. There are accused persons, litigants and witnesses arriving without independent advice.
“I am conscious, of course, of the work that Court Network does throughout the justice system, but it has a particularly important role to play in the family law jurisdiction,” Dr Collins said. “Family law cases involve unique pressures, because of the combination of the breakdown of a relationship, the financial complications that that brings with it, and often the need to manage custody of and access to children.”
“Court Network’s role in providing support is, in my view, simply indispensable.”