Victoria Legal Aid recently marked the progress it is making with others towards a safer, more supportive and increasingly specialised, legal response to family violence, writes Nicole Rich.
Journey to improved services
Over a number of years now, Victoria Legal Aid has been implementing a commitment to improve our family violence legal services. We have been doing this not only to ensure we are providing a high-quality response to people at their time of engagement with the legal system, but also to promote long-term safer outcomes – and to do our part to contribute to the overall reduction and prevention of family violence in the community.
At a state level, we have been heavily engaged in the implementation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Family Violence, having participated fully and openly in the commission process itself.
Across both state and Commonwealth jurisdictions, we have implemented the first stages of a comprehensive plan, encompassing service design, professional development, community legal education, and engagement with a range of changes to law and practice.
History of involvement in family violence matters
While there is still some way to go, legal, public and community sector professionals will know much about the community’s journey towards a better understanding of, and response to, family violence.
This includes the leadership role played here in Victoria by women’s and family violence organisations, by the Victoria Police and by government.
This journey is reflected in the legal system and Victoria Legal Aid’s own history.
Before the turn of the century we were providing duty lawyer services to the Magistrates’ Courts, much as we still do. Family violence matters popped up in the general lists and were not necessarily dealt with in a specialised way by the courts or by us.
It was community legal centres that began advocating for a better justice sector response to family violence.
As the Magistrates’ Courts began to introduce specific family violence lists, our duty lawyer response expanded, although largely in response to developments, and largely advising respondents – a bit akin to our daily criminal defence role in the everyday court.
Community legal centres attracted funding to establish family violence duty lawyer services and we became more drawn into the response.
In 2008, the current Family Violence Protection Act was introduced and we began to provide duty lawyer services to the Family Violence Division and specialist courts.
The legislation also introduced court-ordered representation in direct cross-examination situations, and we were given the role of funding and arranging this representation across the state.
We were, and still are, the largest family violence legal service provider. We are a state-wide service and we practise across different areas of legal needs that families and children affected by family violence need help with. As an organisation, we needed to shift gears – and we did.
We established specialist family violence roles and began to invest more proactively in our family violence services – both in design and delivery.
Between 2010 and 2015, family violence duty lawyer services delivered by Victoria Legal Aid and community legal centres increased by 24 per cent, and we made at least one service available at almost every court across Victoria.
We also started our preventative legal education project, Settled and Safe. But we were still only assisting less than half of the people eligible for family violence duty lawyer help. This is also difficult work. We identified that we needed to do more to support our staff, both in their professional development around understanding and responding to family violence and to keep themselves and clients safe.
Client Safety Framework to identify risk factors
As part of a comprehensive project of improvements, we have now developed a Client Safety Framework and a professional development program.
We are seeking to improve the quality, effectiveness and preventative aspect of legal services provided to clients whose legal matter includes a history or experience of family violence.
The Client Safety Framework was rolled out last year to all client-facing staff, enabling them to better identify and respond to family violence and suicide risk indicators.
Lawyers aren’t risk managers – but they can and do already see indicators or flags of risks when dealing with clients, and we need to know what to do about those, to keep people safe and to provide the most informed legal advice and response.
The framework ensures that all of our lawyers are delivering robust advice to their clients, meeting all ethical obligations, and promoting safety while doing so.
We are now working with various others in the justice sector about how the Client Safety Framework could be used by them to help in their own service delivery work also.
Online training program for lawyers
We have also designed and developed an online training program for lawyers who are delivering family violence intervention order services. This went live to our lawyers on 6 June 2017.
It is a highly engaging and interactive online format for professional development, including content from a range of senior lawyers.
Once the online tools are road-tested, we hope that they can also be made available for community legal centre lawyers, private practitioners and police lawyers, and be of value to them, increasing the quality of legal advice across the state.
Settled and safe for emerging migrant communities
In community legal education, we have developed and delivered the popular Settled and Safe program, which addresses family violence as well as related family law and child protection issues in Victoria’s emerging migrant communities.
We have also developed ‘Pick a Path’, a youth-focused adaptation of the Settled and Safe program for newly arrived young people. It covers a range of legal issues, including forced marriage.
These programs work with existing services and with communities to tell stories that engage them in thinking about how the law operates in their communities.
They can also be delivered by our legal service delivery partners, and several community legal centres have delivered Settled and Safe within their own community.
Family advocacy and support services
Another new family violence service, the Family Advocacy and Support Services (FASS) was launched by Senator James Paterson on 6 June 2017 here in Victoria.
This new service ensures that people who have experienced or are alleged of family violence will be able to get legal help from a duty lawyer, as well as further assistance from a social support worker to work through other issues on the day at the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia in Dandenong and Melbourne.
It is an enhanced integrated service which recognises that people coming to the court have more than just legal needs. It also recognises that sometimes people come to court not knowing what to do or where to go for help – it is not just a place where family law legal proceedings take place but an intake point into services and help.
FASS ensures we won’t ‘lose’ people seeking help or let them slip through the cracks. It includes legal advice, risk screening, safety planning, and social support services and referrals to improve victim experiences and victim safety, and perpetrator accountability and response.
FASS is funded by the Commonwealth government for a two-year trial until June 2019 under the Third Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022.
We are pleased to have partnered with FASS on a range of services: Peninsula Community Legal Centre and the Family Law Legal Service (through Women’s Legal Service Victoria) on the legal side; and on the social support services side with safe steps Family Violence Response Centre, No To Violence / Men’s Referral Service, WAYSS Ltd and Relationships Australia.
The services support women and men; perpetrators and victims, with specialised support on the ground everyday.
They will help families to navigate the complicated and confusing chasm between Commonwealth family law courts, and state family violence courts and child protection. They will also connect people with other relevant services, such as housing, financial counselling, and drug and alcohol support. FASS 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.
It will also support perpetrators to leave violent patterns of behaviour behind.
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.
Previously, they 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.
Feedback on these fledgling services has been immensely positive, and I sincerely thank the many partners involved in getting FASS up and running, particularly the courts.
Building on the progress made
We have seen significant improvements in the family violence legal response in recent years. We know that legal services do have an important preventative role in the response to family violence. Victoria Legal Aid is deeply involved in the implementation of the recommendations of Victoria’s Royal Commission, and we are coordinating with our partners in developing a whole legal and justice sector approach.
There is significant new funding from the state government this year to implement the recommendations.
There will also be increasing demand for legal help as police numbers and child protection worker numbers continue to rise.
At a national level, we are involved with National Legal Aid and recently made recommendations to the parliamentary inquiry examining how to improve the family law system’s response to family violence.
As well as eliminating direct cross-examination in the family law courts, we would like to see ongoing increases in professional development for all participants in the system, earlier determinations about family violence in family law proceedings and a simplified approach to resolving financial matters when people separate.
We are committed to contributing strongly to the upcoming Australian Law Reform Commission review of the Family Law Act recently announced, and look forward to the government’s discussion paper on means to eliminate direct cross-examination in the family law courts.
Alongside many others, we are working towards a legal response characterised by safety, support and specialisation.
I am pleased to acknowledge all the work we have done together, to improve the legal response to family violence. I look forward to further improvements on the horizon at state and Commonwealth level. This is immensely important work.
The above is an extract of a presentation made by executive director family, youth and children’s law Nicole Rich on 6 June 2017.