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Domestic violence a factor in 76% of SA family law cases

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At least three out of every four legal aid matters that progress to the family law courts in South Australia involve domestic violence, an audit has revealed.

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The state data was collated as part of a national survey of legal aid files, which revealed an even more disturbing snapshot, which showed domestic violence was a factor in almost 80 per cent of family law matters Australia-wide involving legal aid.

In SA, the Legal Services Commission found domestic violence was cited in 2097 cases that went to court in 2014-15 – 76 per cent of the total workload.

Gabrielle Canny, Director of the Legal Services Commission of SA, said the prevalence of domestic violence in family law cases was surprising, but more so the uniformity of the results across the nation.

“The surprise was that the percentage was so similar around Australia,” Canny told InDaily.

“They’re the cases going to court, not the ones able to be settled through mediation [so] when a matter goes to family court those cases are generally the most difficult of circumstances.”

She said the audit involved a review of family law cases “where any of the clients had identified domestic violence or the solicitors acting for them identified domestic violence”.

“In family law cases, you rely heavily on affidavits,” she said.

The national data found domestic violence was a factor in around 21,000 cases in 2014-15, with the highest incidence in the Northern Territory (88 per cent of cases), Western Australia (84 per cent) and Victoria (81 per cent).

National Legal Aid’s new chair, Suzan Cox QC, said in a statement that the figures suggested “a perfect storm of legal problems” for vulnerable people.

“These low-income domestic violence victims can’t afford lawyers and are frequently in bitter dispute with partners over the care of their children,” she said.

“It is essential the assistance they receive is better funded.”

Legal aid providers have seized on the data to call for an immediate funding boost, in line with last year’s COAG advisory panel report.

“We’re looking for the Federal Government to provide more funding for legal aid… $120 million needs to be immediately injected into legal aid around Australia by the Commonwealth Government,” said Canny, who is also the immediate past chair of National Legal Aid.

“Those who are involved [in domestic violence situations] need to be able to quickly, efficiently and proficiently get legal advice.”

She said the response was necessarily complex and often fraught, with the first priority to “check on their safety”.

“Once we’ve established they’re safe we need to give a lot of legal advice about [issues such as] housing, children, debt issues… and if it ends up in family court they very much need a lawyer to go with them,” she said.

“Self-representation is a very difficult thing to do [in these cases].”

She said in relation to reducing the number of cases, “I think what the Government’s doing is right, getting a full education program going”.

Cox said there were many low-income victims who did not qualify for legal aid in family law matters “due to inadequate government funding”.

“They are denied assistance because the legal aid means test is too mean,” she said.

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