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.