According to Victoria Legal Aid (VLA), an alarming 80 per cent of all its cases that come before the family courts feature some form of family violence.
Now a new holistic program aims to help people work through violent family situations with targeted legal assistance and social support.
In addition to legal advice, the new Family Advocacy and Support Services (FASS) program offers VLA clients risk screening, safety planning and social support and referrals.
“This is about trying to help people break the cycle of violence and keep children and families safe by providing the right combination of help at a crucial time,” Nicole Rich, executive director of Family, Youth and Children’s Law, said.
“It is the first time people coming to these courts who are affected by family violence can be directed straight to the different support services they need,” she said.
The service has been available to VLA clients in the daily family law courts at Melbourne and Dandenong since May.
Today, however, the program will be officially launched by the VLA, with a keynote address from Victorian Magistrate Kate Hawkins. Representing the government, Liberal senator James Paterson will also make an appearance at the event.
Types of social support for families engaged in the family law system focus on ways to keep people safe and connect clients to relevant services for accommodation, financial counselling, and drug and alcohol support.
Ms Rich said that the specialist FASS legal services will ensure the voices of family violence victims are heard. The gathering of evidence to present courts with a more complete picture of family circumstances is one example, she suggested, or in cases where a parent requires representation for an urgent family law application.
“Previously, [clients] would have been given a phone number by a duty lawyer, but in many cases they would have nowhere to go after that – often leaving significant issues that contribute to family violence unresolved,” Ms Rich said.
“In more of a one-stop-shop approach, people can now get legal assistance with related state-based legal issues, such as family violence intervention orders and child protection,” she said.
The national FASS program has received $18.5 million government funding until 30 June 2019. The three-year pilot sees duty lawyers and court integrated social support services in the family law courts rolled out in courts across the country.
This allocation is part of a wider federal contribution, pledged by the Commonwealth under the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-22.
In Victoria’s Melbourne and Dandenong court venues, FASS will deliver its social support services in partnership with local groups. According to legal aid, the social support arm of the program will also help keep families safe by offering support to perpetrators “to leave their violent patterns of behaviour behind”.
FASS partners in Melbourne include the Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre and the No To Violence Men’s Referral Service. Victoria Legal Aid and Family Law Legal Service provide the duty lawyer services.
In Dandenong, FASS social support partners are being delivered in partnership with WAYSS Ltd and Relationships Australia. Meanwhile, Victoria Legal Aid and Peninsula Community Legal Centre are providing duty lawyer services.