Stepping stones: legal barriers to economic equality after family violence

22 Sep 2015

Executive summary

Women’s Legal Service Victoria has observed that there are legal and economic problems arising from family violence which result in serious financial hardship for women and, at present, there are no accessible legal remedies to these problems.

We have researched the problems in the Stepping Stones project. This report contains the findings of the project and recommendations for solutions.

In interviews with women, we explored the consequences of family violence on women’s financial circumstances. We specifically directed our attention to systemic barriers women faced in their economic recovery. Common themes emerged from the interviews including:

  • A lack of police understanding of the financial consequences arising from family violence, and a lack of police action in stopping economic abuse.
  • The conditions included in intervention orders of the Magistrates’ Court are largely unhelpful in preventing economic abuse.
  • Women who are victims of family violence often have to flee their home; this has serious financial implications and there is a major shortage of available housing for women.
  • Service providers such as energy retailers, telecommunication services and banks have low awareness of the difficulties faced by women experiencing family violence and are unhelpful when interacting with these customers.
  • The energy, telecommunications and banking industries insist on their right to enforce joint debts, even in circumstances of family violence. This places women and their financial recovery at risk.
  • Women have little knowledge of their legal and financial rights following violence and separation. This lack of knowledge can result in women staying in unsafe relationships.
  • Women who are involved in family law proceedings to resolve financial issues experience a lengthy and stressful process, and achieve outcomes that are often inequitable.

Many women choose not to pursue financial settlements after relationship breakdown because of the particular barriers created by family violence. This causes further financial disadvantage for women.

Perpetrators use joint debt to continue to perpetrate violence against women and there is no legal recourse to sever the joint liability.

Although there are legal mechanisms available to address some of the problems women encounter, women’s access to these mechanisms is hindered. There is potential to make better use of intervention orders in dealing with some of the debt and small property issues that arise. There are also existing mechanisms in the family law jurisdiction that could better assist women. Improving the accessibility of available legal remedies for family violence victims is key to economic equality.

During our research it became clear that reform to: family law, the family violence legal system and the regulation of energy, telecommunications and credit is needed. This law and regulation reform needs to be coupled with the adoption of better policies by industry and government departments which:

  • recognise family violence
  • formally recognise intervention orders or family law orders that seek to address abusive behaviour, and
  • provide training to staff on the nature and impacts of family violence, including economic abuse.

Implementing these system-wide changes will remove the financial and legal barriers to women achieving economic independence after family violence.

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