Cuts to impact vulnerable

CUTS to Legal Aid services will force more vulnerable Latrobe Valley women to face abusive ex-partners in court without legal representation, according to a legal service specialising in relationship breakdown and violence against women.

Women’s Legal Service Victoria policy and campaigns manager Pasanna Mutha-Merennege said Legal Aid’s new guidelines, which came into affect on 7 January after recording a $3.1 million deficit last financial year, could have a “traumatising” impact on victims of domestic abuse going through family law proceedings.

“Basically the cuts mean if one party is not represented at trial, then another party will not be eligible for legal aid, which will result in a direct-cross-examination by an abusive ex-partner,” Ms Mutha-Merennege said.

“For victims of family violence, who have been assaulted or psychologically abused by their ex-partner, appearing unrepresented in a family law trial is a frightening prospect, and can result in re-traumatisation of the victim.”

Ms Mutha-Merennege has called for amendments to the Family Law Act, which does not provide protection for women who are under cross-examination from former partners.

“There are protections in criminal law for sexual offences and in family violence intervention order proceedings which stop the accused from cross examining the victim, and those protections should be in place in family law as well,” she said.

“Because there no protections under the Family Law Act in place for these women it already happens all the time, but because of the cuts we are going to have it happening more and more.”

While Victorian Legal Aid Gippsland regional director Nicole Rich acknowledged the increase in unrepresented litigants facing ex-partners, she said Legal Aid had prioritised legal representation in dispute resolution processes, where she 86 per cent of cases were resolved before going to court.

“Demand for family law has been growing for many years, and certainly in the current situation we are facing record levels of demand,” Ms Rich said.

“The Commonwealth Government’s investment hasn’t been keeping up with that increase over the last two years, which has been particularly acute because of police’s increase approach to tackling family violence.”

However Ms Rich flagged further cuts to legal aid services in coming months, which she suggested would tighten eligibility criteria for low income dispute resolution applicants.