Small claims, large battles: achieving economic equality in the family law system

Family law Family violence Women economic conditions Women's rights

Women’s Legal Service Victoria (WLSV) established the Small Claims, Large Battles (Small Claims) project to investigate the barriers to fair financial outcomes in the family law system for vulnerable and disadvantaged women, many of whom had experienced family violence. The project was a collaboration between WLSV, Lander & Rogers and Herbert Smith Freehills.

This report details our findings and makes recommendations for reform to law and policy to improve access to fair property settlements for disadvantaged women.

We focused on representing women who had a small amount of property to divide after separation. These women also experienced other disadvantages, which impacted their access to justice. In determining eligibility for assistance through the project, we considered material wealth, existing power imbalances, the size and type of assets the potential clients had to divide, as well as their prospects of success.

The majority of women represented had experienced family violence, including economic abuse. Many women were from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and a number of clients had disabilities or cared for someone who did. Some women were from rural or regional areas and a significant proportion of women were at risk of poverty and homelessness. We represented women with few assets, no assets, superannuation as their only significant asset, or women who were struggling with joint debts from their relationship.

We provided legal representation to 48 women through the Small Claims project. We also included the stories and interviews of four WLSV clients whose matters concluded before the commencement of the project. At the time of this report, 20 matters were finalised (including the four prior matters) and 18 were ongoing, with the prospect of a property settlement outcome. Fourteen matters out of the 48 ceased to meet our eligibility criteria for the project.

The women assisted through the project were most in need of access to a fair property settlement because of the financial hardship and other disadvantages they experienced. Without the free legal assistance provided, their limited finances and other vulnerabilities would have made a settlement difficult to obtain in the present family law system.

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