Australia’s Family Law system is failing domestic violence survivors: Angela Lynch

Australia’s Family Law system is failing domestic violence survivors: Angela Lynch

Angela Lynch is the CEO of Women’s Legal Service Queensland, where she advocates for survivors of family and domestic violence and has led on a number of new initiatives to assist those experiencing violence.

Sadly, she says that demand for their services are surging and that despite their increased capacity, they’re still unable to answer 40% of calls to their state-wide Domestic Violence Legal Helpline.

As such, she believes that governments must better address the issue, including by giving urgent attention to how Australia’s Family Law system is failing domestic violence survivors.

“We would like to see a specialist, consistent approach to domestic and family violence cases in the family law system with standardised triage, adequate training for family law staff and a new risk and safety focus,” she says.

Lynch’s leadership at the service has seen her receive multiple awards including the Lawyer’s Weekly Women in Law Not-for-Profit Lawyer of the Year, the Women’s Agenda Emerging Leader in the Legal Sector, and an AM in the 2019 Australia Day Honour’s List.

Lynch has also helped develop Penda, a financial empowerment app that helps women feel more secure in their finances when leaving abusive relationships.

Below, we catch up with Lynch, two years after she was named Women’s Agenda’s Emerging Leader in the Legal Sector

WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?

As CEO of Women’s Legal Service Queensland (WLSQ) I lead the specialist community legal centre in building safer futures for Queensland women and their children who have experienced domestic violence – overseeing frontline operations, external advocacy, and client services.

WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN UP TO SINCE THE WOMEN’S AGENDA LEADERSHIP AWARDS?

Since winning the Women’s Agenda Leadership Award we’ve been incredibly busy at Women’s Legal Service.

Sadly we’ve seen demand for our service continuing to surge. Despite, increasing our capacity, we’re still unable to answer 40% of calls to our State-wide Domestic Violence Legal Helpline.

Across that period we established a Health Justice Partnerships in hospitals across the Greater Brisbane region which link patients experiencing domestic violence with vital legal help at a time when they need it most, while training doctors and other hospital staff in how to identify and sensitively connect survivors with services. We have also employed our first First Nations Liaison Officer to increase cultural safety and help make the Service more welcoming for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women.

On a personal note, in 2017 I was humbled to receive the Lawyer’s Weekly Women in Law Not-for-profit Lawyer of the Year award and in 2019 I was awarded an AM in the Australia Day Honour’s List for service to victims of domestic and family violence. Most recently I was appointed to Queensland’s Round Table on Sexual Violence Prevention which has been tasked with developing a new Sexual Violence Prevention Framework.

WHAT’S SOMETHING YOU’RE WORKING ON THAT YOU’RE EXCITED ABOUT?

I’m really excited about our remote volunteering program which is allowing legal professionals in rural regional and remote areas to volunteer their time helping women experiencing domestic violence. With a grant from John T Reid Charitable Trust we developed the IT infrastructure so lawyers from throughout Qld can register, complete training, schedule appointments and provide legal advice to our clients at a time and place of their convenience. It makes it so easy to volunteer and is having a huge impact. So far the program’s significantly expanded the volunteer solicitor pool and means we’re helping more women and their children to safety.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE JUST SEEMS TO BE GROWING AS THE YEARS GO ON. WHAT STEPS DO YOU BELIEVE GOVERNMENTS CAN TAKE IMMEDIATELY TO ASSIST WOMEN AND CHILDREN AFFECTED BY DOMESTIC VIOLENCE?

An area that needs urgent attention is how Australia’s Family Law system is failing domestic violence survivors. The Family Court is a domestic violence court. Conservatively, we know that there are allegations of physical violence in at least 54% of matters and emotional abuse in 85%.

We would like to see a specialist, consistent approach to domestic and family violence cases in the family law system with standardised triage, adequate training for family law staff and a new risk and safety focus.

We’re particularly concerned with the failure to investigate child abuse when family court proceedings are afoot.

We’d like to see a whole of government response at a Federal and State level to how child abuse allegations post separation are investigated and robust information sharing pathways established with child protection and magistrates courts.

WHAT ARE SOME THINGS THAT MOST PEOPLE DON’T UNDERSTAND ABOUT DOMESTIC VIOLENCE?

I think many people, and this includes professionals that come in contact with survivors, think of domestic and family violence as one off incidents of violence.

They think of violence as being mainly physical and easily isolated from other elements of their lives together. They think of a perpetrator as “losing control” and lashing out in a bout of physical aggression. But we know that domestic and family violence is a pattern of coercion and control that shapes and colours all interactions between survivor and perpetrator. Physical violence can be combined with emotional, financial and other forms of abuse. 

WHERE DO YOU WANT TO SEE YOUR CAREER AND WORK GO IN FIVE YEARS?

In five years’ time my dream would be to see the Service grow and flourish. I would love to see the service get to a point where we’re fully funded: we can answer all calls that come through to our Helpline and offer free legal advice sessions to every woman who reaches out.

FINALLY, WHO’S A WOMAN YOU REALLY ADMIRE RIGHT NOW?

I have complete respect and admiration for Saxon Mullins, who came forward to identify herself as the complainant in one of Australia’s most controversial rape trials in the Four Corners’s report, I am that girl. By sharing her experience she really illustrated how completely hostile our criminal justice systems can be to sexual violence survivors. Mullins sharing her story has directly influenced New South Wales’ decision to launch a law review into the sexual consent laws and has put this squarely on the national agenda.

We think this area requires significant change from the ground up and survivors would benefit from a specially trained sexual assault lawyer by their side each step of the way through the criminal justice system.

See more on Angela here.

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