Specialist family violence court and legal aid needed in north-east Victoria, advocates say
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Specialist family violence court and legal aid needed in north-east Victoria, advocates say

As a victim-survivor of family violence, Alexandra (name changed to protect privacy) had to go to court many times.

“[It was] an exceptionally challenging and debilitating period in my life, and it’s been years,” she said.

With no specialist family violence court in her town of Wangaratta, or in north east Victoria at all, she had to attend the local Magistrates Court, which she says was not properly equipped.

“[I had to] be in the court room with the perpetrator, had to walk right beside them, stand by them. I certainly felt intimidated,” she said.

Alexandra was one of many people and local organizations to take part in a roundtable at Wangaratta this week, organized by Member for Northern Victoria Tania Maxwell.

The aim was to define the need for a specialist family violence court (SFVC) and Legal Aid Office in north east Victoria.

Alison Maher from the Hume Riverina Community Legal Service said it was something they had needed for a long time.

“We’re the only free community legal service in our region and we’re turning away more people than we can currently assist,” Ms Maher said.

a sign on a wall saying "court"
Many victim-survivors describe the court process as confusing and intimidating.(ABC: Angel Parsons)

She was frustrated the region did not have a SFVC, while others did.

“What that means is our people, our residents, are getting a far lesser service than what others are getting across the state,” she said.

“It’s a huge postcode injustice and something that needs to change.”

Specialists, support and privacy

The latest Crime Statistics Agency data showed alarming family violence rates for many parts of the north-east region in the year ending June 2022.

The Victorian average was 1,373.5 family violence incidents per 100,000 people. In Wangaratta that rate was 2,063, in Wodonga it was 2,092, and in Benalla it was almost 2501.

The 2015 Royal Commission into Family Violence recommended all family violence matters be heard and determined in SFVCs.

It recommended these be established at all 14 headquarter Magistrates Courts in Victoria, with the model including specialist magistrates, registrars and respondent workers, dedicated police prosecutors and purpose-built environments that were more secure and accessible.

So far, funding has been allocated for the first five court locations. Two are in regional Victoria, in Ballarat and Shepparton.

Center Against Violence CEO Jaime Chubb said there was great need for a SFVC in north-east Victoria, with 80 per cent of the center’s clients needing to access the court system in some way.

It operates in Wangaratta and Wodonga and has outreach in Myrtleford and Benalla.

“It’s incredibly traumatic for people to go through the court system, even when there is a specialist family violence court. But even more so when they’re forced to go through the local court system,” she said.

“We’re talking about people who have already experienced significant abuse and trauma and isolation and disadvantage, and then we’re putting them through a system that’s not designed to have the best outcome for them and their families.”

Alexandra said her experience in Wangaratta showed her how much more needed to be done in this space.

“My first point of call would be having specialized family violence units of police,” she said.

“They are absolutely paramount in supporting victims and survivors going through domestic violence.”

Outside shot of a cream and brick art deco building with white columns, the words court house on the facade
Currently, family violence cases must be heard in the general Wangaratta Magistrates’ Court. .(ABC News: Katherine Smyrk)

She believed specialist courts were perhaps even more important in country towns and regional areas where there were close-knit communities.

“We’re more likely to know one another and that’s why I think it’s critical,” she said.

“Privacy is really important and that [would] enable victims to access those services and feel protected.”

Moving forward

Tania Maxwell said the roundtable was a big success, with an advisory group to be set up and ongoing meetings to be held.

“Ultimately we want to have something to put together before the election to send to the minister,” she said.

It was a first step, but one Jaime Chubb said was essential for building wider understanding about what was happening on the ground.

She said it was particularly good to talk about this issue with organizations like local councils, who did not have direct interaction with the people impacted.

“They have the data, but they don’t necessarily understand what it’s like; what [family violence incidents] actually mean in terms of the impact on the victim-survivors and their children, and their families, and their sporting clubs, and their employers,” she said.

“To build that understanding, of just how broad the impact of family violence really is in these communities, is a really important step for us to be making regardless of our end objective.”

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