Hume Riverina Community Legal Service (HRCLS) Acting Principal Lawyer Alison Maher said victim survivors and perpetrators of violence in North East Victoria are missing out on vital resources currently available in metropolitan and other regional areas across the State. A Specialist Family Violence Court and Victoria Legal Aid office established locally would help solve these issues.
“This is a serious injustice and must be addressed,” Ms Maher said. “Having a Specialist Family Violence Court in our region would improve the safety of victim survivors and better hold perpetrators of violence to account.”
Ms Maher welcomed Member for Northern Victoria Tania Maxwell calling on the Victorian Government to address the gap in North East Victoria.
“We are pleased Ms Maxwell has recognised the need for improved resourcing for local victim survivors and perpetrators and that she has raised this important issue in Parliament and called for immediate action,” she said.
A Specialist Family Violence Court provides the range of supports crucial for victim survivors and perpetrators of violence, including specially trained workers. “In Specialist Courts, there are family violence practitioners who provide intensive assistance, such as making appropriate and timely referrals to community agencies. There are currently no support services in our Courts,” Ms Maher said.
Ms Maher said the safety of victim survivors is paramount, at a time of extreme vulnerability and stress.
“Specialist Family Violence Courts can have purpose built environments to maximise safety and choice,” Ms Maher said. “These can include separate entries and exits, safe waiting areas and interview rooms and child friendly spaces. It is important that victim survivors feel safe and comforted in what is often described as the “worst day’.”
Magistrates, Registrars, lawyers and support workers also receive specialist training. Ms Maher said Magistrates in Specialist Family Violence Courts also had different powers to those in Magistrates’ Courts, including being able to hear different matters together, instead of them being listed for another time.
“In the Specialist Family Violence Court, Magistrates can also make Orders mandating perpetrators to attend counselling, which can really hold a perpetrator to account,” Ms Maher said.
In the past five years, the number of people contacting the free legal service has been growing annually, and from 1 July 2021 to 30 June 2022, HRCLS was forced to turn away more clients than they assisted.
“It is devastating that we are turning away more people than we can assist. We are the only free legal service in our region, and just don’t have the resources that are needed. We particularly see this with our family law appointments, where we are booked out weeks in advance.” Ms Maher said.
“More than 80% of our clients experience or are at risk of experiencing family violence,” Ms Maher said. “With the increased rates of family violence, we do not see that the need for legal assistance will decrease. This is of course not just a regional issue, but our clients are significantly disadvantaged by the lack of free legal services. A local Victoria Legal Aid service would help ease the burden.”
Ms Maher said people who could not get an appointment for free legal help from a HRCLS lawyer would most likely end up speaking over the phone with a lawyer based in Melbourne. “We know our clients don’t want this,” she said. “They want a local face that they can trust, not a call centre with lengthy waiting times.”
It is also problematic the region has only few private lawyers on the legal aid panels. “Referrals are often extremely difficult to make due to the lack of practitioners and capacity to take on new matters,” Ms Maher said. “Conflicts of interest are also common in our region, meaning people can’t get legal assistance from our service.
“We need change. This is not a good position to be in and there are too many people who are missing out on legal assistance and support services at a time when they are most needed”.
You can read Member for Northern Victoria Tania Maxwell and Centre Against Violence CEO Jaime Chubb’s media statements here.
A significant funding boost for Hume Riverina Community Legal Service (HRCLS) will increase free legal services to women who have or are experiencing domestic violence in NSW, and grow the connection with Albury Wodonga Aboriginal Health Service (AWAHS) to assist people experiencing mental health conditions deal with their legal problems.
HRCLS Acting Principal Lawyer Debi Fisher welcomed the funding, which will enhance existing partnerships over the next four years and expand the reach of the community legal service in NSW.
“We are pleased to be given the two streams of NSW NLAP funding to help more people with their legal problems, and excited at the opportunities this presents to continue growing our partnerships,” Ms Fisher said “Our community has been through a lot over the last few years with bushfires, COVID, and border restrictions. All of this takes a toll on people’s wellbeing and makes dealing with everyday legal problems even harder. We know that working in partnership leads to better outcomes for people, as they can be supported with their social, health and legal problems in a collaborative way.
“Our relationship with AWAHS has been running for 12 years and this new program will help expand the assistance we can provide to the community,” Ms Fisher said. “We are looking forward to this exciting new initiative which will help meet the demand for legal assistance and build on the success of the partnership we have had with AWAHS through the Invisible Hurdles project, targeting youth affected by family violence.”
The funding will also enable HRCLS to increase its presence in areas of the Southern Riverina such as Deniliquin, Finley and Corowa. HRCLS will work closely with the Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service to ensure women in the region who have experienced or are experiencing domestic violence, have timely access to free legal services.
“We know the benefits early legal intervention have for woman and children experiencing domestic violence,” Ms Fisher said. “This funding will enable us to engage early, and to help tackle the myriad legal issues that women may be experiencing, such as family law problems, debts, fines and housing. It can be very difficult for women to get free legal assistance in these areas, and we are keen to meet clients where they are at and provide that wrap-around, holistic service which is needed.”
Funding for the additional legal service was announced as part of the extra $95 million funding under the National Legal Assistance Partnership Agreement 2020-25.
Bushfire victims in North East Victoria experiencing legal problems now have increased access to free advice.
A full-time Bushfire Lawyer, Harley Dannatt, has been employed in the role with the Hume Riverina Community Legal Service (HRCLS) to deliver the free and confidential legal service.
Mr Dannatt has started visiting Corryong and Bright on a fortnightly basis.
In Corryong, Mr Dannatt is attending the Corryong Neighbourhood Centre and Upper Murray Community Recovery Hub, and in Bright, the Alpine Region Community Recovery Hub, to speak to people about legal problems they have faced after the January 2020 bushfires.
HRCLS Manager & Principal Lawyer Sarah Rodgers said the focus of Mr Dannatt’s role would be to assist people with legal problems as a result of the January 2020 bushfires. He would also be helping people with legal issues arising from COVID-19.
Ms Rodgers thanked the Federal and Victorian governments for funding the position. “People in regional Australia need our support, and we are pleased governments have recognised this need,” she said. “More people are experiencing numerous legal problems when they get in difficulty, and isolation and living in a cross border environment adds another layer to the issues.”
Historically, legal issues have not affected people until months, even years, after the bushfires have wreaked havoc. “From what know, problems don’t appear straight away, so having a lawyer in the role for the next two years is vital for helping people who face issues cropping up long after the fires have passed,” Ms Rodgers said.
Legal problems can include tenancy, fencing and property, insurance, debts, consumer contracts, and family law and family violence.
When people are under stress, it is easy for legal problems to escalate and grow. Ms Rodgers encouraged anyone trying to deal with them individually to get professional help. “Getting early legal advice gives you a much better chance of solving issues before they get out of hand. A lawyer can help get a quicker resolution and better result without the hassle of trying to negotiate the system and processes,” she said.
Mr Dannatt will be working closely with the Bushfire Recovery Hubs, case managers and Gateway Health as the lead agency coordinating the recovery effort. This collective approach and effective referral pathways ensure people have support and do not fall through the cracks. “We encourage people to get in touch with us to get early advice if they find themselves with legal problems,” Ms Rodgers said.
If you need free legal advice as a result of the January 2020 bushfires, please call 1800 918 377 to talk about your issue, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Corryong Neighbourhood Centre or Upper Murray Community Recovery Hub
Alpine Region Community Recovery Hub
For more information, visit https://www.hrcls.org.au/bushfire-legal-help/