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Barely two years on from strong government responses to family violence, driven by Rosie Batty, federal funding cuts to front-line services threaten to place more women and children than ever in jeopardy. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Federal cuts to family violence reform funding

Rosie Batty, at left, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull following the announcement of federal funding to reduce violence against women.
Credit: AAP IMAGE / JULIAN SMITH

For Rosie Batty, the world tilted off its axis in 2014. Everything changed. It was a brutal year, and surreal in its mix of private mourning and public scrutiny. Within 12 months, Batty’s young son had been murdered and her response obsessively parsed by the public. She became, very quickly, a public voice for family violence reform. She sat through the coronial inquest into her son’s death, and listened to recollections of the murder at the hands of his father. Then, as the inquest continued, she became Victorian of the Year – a prelude to becoming Australian of the Year. Her insistence upon cultural change – her demands that abusive men be held accountable by a society more inclined to blame victims – was also attracting vociferous criticism, most notoriously from former federal opposition leader Mark Latham, who would begin his long campaign of vulgar belligerence against her. I wouldn’t have been alone in pondering the state of her nervous system, nor in marvelling at her strength. 

But to people working in the family violence sector, it seemed that a wave was cresting – of public recognition and political commitment to reform. A large part of that was the advocacy work of Batty. There were other reasons for optimism – Bill Shorten, in his 2013 campaign against Anthony Albanese for the Labor leadership, nominated family violence as a central issue. In 2015, in one of his first major statements as prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull announced about $100 million in funding for the Women’s Safety Package. Batty stood beside him as he said: “Violence against women is one of the great shames of Australia. It is a national disgrace … Let me say this to you: disrespecting women does not always result in violence against women. But all violence against women begins with disrespecting women. We, as leaders, as a government, must make it, and we will make it, a clear national objective of ours to ensure that Australia is more respecting of women. Women must be respected. Disrespecting women is unacceptable.” 

The same year, the COAG Advisory Panel on Reducing Violence against Women and their Children was established. In Victoria, a royal commission into the issue began. It tabled its mammoth report – along with 227 recommendations – in March last year. Currently, 10 of those recommendations have been implemented. Another 212 are “in progress”. There seemed to be momentum. But today, Rosie Batty is starting to wonder. She tells me she is greatly worried about recent federal cuts to women’s legal services. 

‘Already turning people away’

Just before Christmas, the Women’s Legal Service Victoria was notified that $200,000 of federal funding would be shaved. The service offers pro bono advice, representation and mediation for more than 3000 women each year, women who would otherwise not be able to afford it. They consider themselves a front-line service. “We can’t keep up with demand currently,” Joanna Fletcher tells me. “And this is before the cuts.”

Fletcher is the service’s chief executive. She is both angry and incredulous. “We’re already turning people away,” she says. “And it’s sad, because our service model is about providing service to those with barriers to justice. We’re now having to make decisions about what to cut, about what the least worst options are. We are incredibly frustrated on behalf of our clients. This is very short-sighted. We know from experience that early legal assistance is vital, for the protection of women but also for quicker outcomes.”

It’s a point made by all the family lawyers I spoke to for this piece: those in the legal system without representation spend a lot more time there. As well as diminishing a woman’s protection, it is ultimately costlier, and adds to procedural logjams. “There’s incredible commitment at the state level here,” Fletcher says, “but the apparent federal commitment hasn’t been followed by a financial commitment.” 

Fletcher’s Queensland counterparts have yet to be notified whether their funding will also be cut. They will be told at the end of March, but they are already preparing themselves for the worst. There is the same anger and incredulity there. “We’re absolutely alarmed,” says Angela Lynch, the acting co-ordinator of the Women’s Legal Service Queensland. “A 30 per cent cut would be catastrophic. Currently, we can only answer 50 per cent of incoming calls on our legal hotline. This will only worsen with the cuts. So, that’s much fewer women receiving advice and assistance. We’re a core service, and yet as it is we can’t properly service all women because we’re under-resourced. This is about women’s safety. Their lives.”

She said cuts “don’t make any sense when there’s a national plan, and the PM has made announcements. It makes no sense. We are a front-line service. And we do great work, and we push our money further than any other community service that I can think of. A third of our income is raised by fundraising or corporate partnerships. Up here in Queensland, family violence is still something that’s publicly discussed. There’s the rollout here of the Not Now, Not Ever recommendations. There was the horrific reminder of its importance last week, with the murder-suicide of Teresa Bradford. There’s momentum. But I cannot understand these federal cuts.”

Teresa Bradford was killed by her estranged husband on the Gold Coast. He was out on bail on other domestic violence charges. After Bradford’s death, the Women’s Legal Service Queensland hotline experienced a 50 per cent increase in calls, a spike common in the aftermath of atrocities. “We’re already chronically underfunded,” Lynch says. “When you’re cutting front-line services, you have to ask: is the federal government really committed to reducing family violence? Now we wait. We’ll know on the 31st of March. But we’ve survived for more than 30 years. We’ll fight on.” 

Marlene Ebejer is the principal lawyer of Ebejer and Associates, and a family law specialist. She tells me the cuts will have “diabolical” consequences. “These cuts won’t save money,” she says. “Cutting funding for women’s services cuts legal mediations, which stops things getting to court. This is an atrocious outcome. Already the courts can’t cope. There are massive delays, and delays are extended by those who aren’t represented.” 

Ebejer speaks bluntly, and passionately, about the need for legal reform but tells me that to argue for change is to experience groundhog day. Every lawyer she knows has made the same points for years: in a system where intervention orders fall under the state’s authority, and family law courts are federal, there needs to be improved cross-jurisdictional coherence. She also argues for increased mediation, to decrease the number of matters before court, and for the proper triaging of matters.

“There are always two sides to the story,” she explains. “Family violence has always existed, will probably always exist. The other side is that some use the term ‘family violence’ very loosely. So you need a system that can differentiate. But the system is under-resourced. I’ve been involved in very, very serious family violence matters and the procedural delays were extremely stressful to my client. We need to triage. But all lawyers are saying the same things. Nothing’s changed. In 2009 there were three reports about amending family law. And what’s really changed? Not much.”

Ebejer wonders if legal reform is stymied by two things: one, federal funding for community legal services being predicated upon their agreement not to criticise the government; and, two, public discussions on family violence that preference social considerations over more practical ones.

“Legal centres used to do a lot of law reform. Advocacy. They’re not allowed to do that anymore under certain funding arrangements,” she says. “As for the conditions of family violence, well… There are men who are misogynistic. But there are some who have serious mental health or drug issues. But we’re fixated with misogyny. It’s a simplification. Read the legal cases. Have a look at the issues in these cases. Why is the person violent? You can’t make generalisations.” 

The lawyers I spoke to shared similar frustrations, but also an optimism that in certain states there was a sincere commitment to reform. Joanna Fletcher, for instance, spoke of the “galvanising effect” of the Victorian royal commission’s report. But most spoke of dismal court delays, the vexatious use of intervention orders, and a widening gap of commitment between states and the federal government. With these looming cuts to women’s legal services – effective in July – one might wonder if that wave crested at all. 

Rosie Batty is cautiously optimistic, but remains “very concerned” about cuts to the women’s legal services. She is aware that not everyone agrees with her opinions, but is appreciative of the reforms that have occurred in the past two years. She is also grateful for the fact that lawmakers, state and federal, have listened to her and others in the sector. But the question of federal commitment lingers. “I wonder if it’s not top of the mind as it was when I was Australian of the Year,” she says. “I don’t necessarily know that they have the same focus.”

National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 11, 2017 as "Under threat". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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