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Indigenous women at risk from lack of DV legal funding

Rudi Maxwell -

Legal services that help Indigenous women and children with family violence are being forced to turn away clients or even close.

Trying to escape a violent home is never easy, but for Aboriginal women living in remote communities there are frequently complexities on top of complexities.

Small towns with family connections can mean anonymity is near to impossible. Shelters where they exist are stretched, and if a woman is on income management she has no access to cash.

When a woman walks through the doors of the Central Australian Aboriginal Family Legal Unit (CAAFLU) she knows she's in safe hands.

The unit is part of the national family violence prevention legal services forum - Aboriginal community controlled organisations that help First Nations women and children with often complex and multi-layered issues.

The network offers culturally safe and trauma-informed wraparound services, as well as legal assistance.

First Nations women are 33 times more likely to be hospitalised and six times more likely to die from domestic violence than non-Indigenous women.

CAAFLU chief executive P Clarke, an Arrernte woman, painted a scenario of an Aboriginal woman from a remote community on income management trying to escape family violence.

"She could have been hit in the head 20 times ... and may end up at a women's shelter here in Alice Springs, where it's absolutely wrong and horrible but life isn't free, and she has to pay per night $10.95," she said.

Income management is when Centrelink payments are quarantined onto a debit card that's only authorised for certain purchases, meaning no ability, or sometimes a very small ability, to withdraw cash.

If an abuser takes the card, it's another way to assert control and can further restrict a woman's capacity to leave a violent situation.

In those circumstances, the woman might sign a form meaning Centrelink can deduct the total from her social security payment and then months later not understand why her payment is less.

Ms Clarke explained that without assistance, sometimes already vulnerable women find themselves in further financial difficulty.

"So that's big, bad, wrong and ugly," she said.

"And there is a very horrible story that we could share with our country about all of these issues, which no one is aware of at all and it needs addressing, it's a very serious matter.

"We are wanting to make changes in our community."

At the Top End Women's Legal Centre (TEWLC), almost a third of their clients (31 per cent) are Indigenous and more than three quarters of their ongoing clients are affected by family violence.

Many clients are referred by women's shelters or police.

Most will have multiple issues they need help with, and for many migrant and Aboriginal clients English is not their first language.

Over the Christmas break, they were forced to say no to 60 women referred to them because they lacked the capacity.

"We're not able to urgently go to court and get the restraining order to protect the client and her children," the centre's chief executive Caitlin Weatherby-Fell said.

"We're not able to negotiate parenting arrangements to make sure that any time for the children with potentially the parent who presents the most risk, is able to be safe.

"If we're not able to provide any assistance it means people are self-navigating through a system that is increasingly complex, that increasingly relies on lawyers being able to assist because everything is in legalese and nothing is easy to navigate unless you are trained."

Community Legal Centres Australia chairperson Gerard Brody has written to federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, seeking urgent investment of $125 million to prevent a crisis for 165 local services across the country.

On Wednesday, the NSW Far West CLC announced it will cease delivery of its four services, including Warra Warra Legal Service, by July 31.

National Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service (FVPLS) forum chief executive Kerry Staines said the loss of Warra Warra puts Aboriginal women and children at risk.

"Despite their best efforts to continue to support Aboriginal women and children experiencing domestic, family and sexual violence across the vast far west of their state for almost 24 years now, the extreme pressure of retaining community-based legal staff and maintaining its compliance obligations has taken its toll and the centre is no longer able to continue its service delivery," she said.

Mr Brody believes chronic underfunding over the past decade has pushed many services to the brink of closure and that, without a significant injection of extra support, the Far West CLC won't be the last to close its doors.

He says lack of funds mean CLCs are forced to turn away more than 200,000 people a year.

"The cost of this crisis can be measured in people in prisons and hospitals, women and children stuck in dangerous situations, people losing their homes, households overwhelmed by debt and financial problems, families unable to resolve the custody of their children, asylum seekers facing ongoing exploitation, and people left in the dark about their legal rights," he said.

The Top End Women's Legal Service and CAAFLU are finding it increasingly difficult to find and keep staff.

"More investment needs to happen from government, both federal and territory, to help these services because otherwise there's going to be no one around to help the victims," CAAFLU principal legal officer Carol Smith said.

"We're seeing it now ... in Central Australia, they're finding it difficult to get criminal lawyers and every man and his dog wants to be a criminal lawyer.

"But to get people to work in our area, which is even more specialised and more traumatic on the practitioners, it's really hard."

Ms Clarke also wants the NT government to step up.

"We've shared our great stories how when we have had capacity and when we have had the right funding, we can deliver early intervention prevention that works," she said.

"And we've delivered legal education with our children, even in our remote communities and for some reason, the Northern Territory government has not come come to the table."

CLCs, Indigenous legal services and legal aid are funded through the National Legal Assistance Partnership, which Mr Dreyfus commissioned Warren Mundy to review.

The final report is due by the end of February.

A spokesperson for Mr Dreyfus said the government had made a record investment of $2.3 billion in women's safety.

"The Albanese government recognises the extraordinary pressures these services are under, and the importance of strengthening the legal assistance sector," the spokesperson said.

"The government remains committed to supporting critical service delivery for First Nations peoples and will continue to work with states and territories and service delivery organisations to address these issues, including in the (NSW) Far West."

13YARN 13 92 76

Aboriginal Counselling Services 0410 539 905

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)

Lifeline 13 11 14

Rudi Maxwell - AAP

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