Untangling the law: our partnership with WEstjustice

Many women who experience family violence feel trapped and unable to leave because they have been denied access to their own money, and have been saddled with their abuser’s debts and fines. Economic and financial abuse – often called sexually transmitted debt – is yet another layer of power and control, and affects up to 90% of women seeking help with family violence.

Our partnership with a western suburbs community legal service has been addressing this issue and achieving excellent results in alleviating the financial stresses that burden women who are escaping family violence. In just four months, 23 women have had debts totalling $65,000 waived, due to the skills, expertise and advocacy of WEstjustice lawyers.

Many women that are being seen by the service had no idea their debts even existed, let alone the extent of them. In the struggle to keep themselves and their children safe and deal with a myriad of other problems, women are frequently overwhelmed. It’s common for them to be confused about how to even start to unravel what’s been going on; it can be hard to find the energy to locate the right support service.

The weekly legal outreach clinics are held in McAuley House and available to all women supported by our services. Close co-operation between our case managers and WEstjustice Principal Lawyer Stephanie Tonkin (pictured at right) makes it easier to establish a full picture of the financial and legal problems that are frequently clustered together.

Our case manager Keren says that the partnership has helped McAuley’s workers be more attuned to asking the right questions, and alert to the likelihood of financial problems. ‘Many women feel a lot of shame and embarrassment about their debts and find it hard to talk about.

‘It’s been part of the cycle of violence, and many have been pressured and threatened, signing documents they don’t understand; they don’t really have a choice. Frequently documents have actually been forged.’

Stephanie explains: ‘Just getting one or two of these debts resolved will not lead to financial security. For many women, there have also been issues with Centrelink, the Office of Housing, and banks.

‘Fines and traffic offences which are in the woman’s name but have often been racked up by the abuser are another problem. Sometimes personal loans or credit cards have been used to pay fines and other bills, which only complicates things further.’

The circumstances of the family violence make it even more difficult to sort things out, as it may be unsafe or impossible for a woman who has left her home to provide the required documentation and paperwork to ‘prove’ what they say has happened.

A key to WEstJustice’s success is that they have already developed links with industry groups, such as telecommunications, banking, insurance and utilities. This work means companies have greater awareness and can respond more flexibly to people presenting with family violence issues. This work, undertaken over several years, has created clear pathways and protocols for WEstjustice to liaise with companies and negotiate on women’s behalf.

McAuley and WEstjustice are now collaborating further, with Keren spending a day at WEstjustice’s Werribee office each week.She is able to assist WEstjustice clients with family violence casework support, such as safety planning and links with other support services.

Read about how the WEstjustice team helped a woman who was left with more than $25,000 of debt - including payment for her late daughter's tombstone.

The outcomes of the partnership and recommendations for the future are being compiled into a report which will be available over the next month.