By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
Holidays can be a stressful time – extra financial strain, perceived social expectations and excessive consumption of alcohol can add tension to family relationships. For many, the holiday period can be a catalyst for arguments – or even abuse.
Many find themselves fleeing violent or dysfunctional relationships over the holidays, putting enormous pressure on community services such as shelters and legal centres which usually operate with limited staff.
National figures suggest a steady increase in reports of family violence over the past several years.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has responded by pledging an extra $100 million in funding to address an issue that he calls “Australia’s shame”.
The funds will go towards housing those who flee from abusive relationships, enhancing access to technology, training police and health workers, and trialling GPS tracking devices for domestic violence offenders. The PM and many others believe a cultural change is crucial if targets of abuse are to remain safe in their homes.
While the pledge is admirable, what is missing from the list is funding for community legal centres – places which provide importance assistance to indigent victims who are seeking advice about their rights or even requiring court representation.
In fact, the government has foreshadowed substantial funding cuts to these vital organisations.
Services are already stretched
Public legal services provide advice with regard to a range of issues when relationships break down, including apprehended violence orders (AVOs), custody and property arrangements, and tenancy agreements.
Daniel Stubbs, a spokesperson for the National Association of Community Legal Services, says the additional pressure of the holiday season is just a glimpse of the stress that community legal centres will come under if the federal government goes ahead with its planned funding cuts.
From 2017 to 2020, funding to community legal services will be slashed by around 30 percent, or about $35 million.
Mr Stubbs believes the government is undervaluing the role played by public lawyers in helping the victims of domestic violence. He points out that an abused partner is the most vulnerable when leaving a relationship, and sufficient legal services need to be in place to help victims to move on with their lives.
He, like many others, has called upon to government to reverse its planned cuts.