Specialist Domestic Violence Courts: Where do duty lawyers fit into the mix?

Kara Cook.
Kara Cook.

By Kara Cook, Griffith University law alumnaand principal solicitor Women’s Legal Service Annerley

Mary* has experienced extreme domestic violence, not just physical abuse as is often reported by the media but a combination of physical, emotional, psychological and financial abuse over at least 15 years. She has children who live with her and has recently separated from her husband. Separation is often the most dangerous time for women.

Mary goes to her local court seeking assistance with obtaining a protection order. She is required to detail on the application the daily abuse both physical and emotional, and is told she will have to go into court and have her application heard by a magistrate who will decide if she is to receive a Temporary Protection Order… or not.

At this point, Mary’s husband is unaware of the application as he has not yet been provided with a copy by the police. Mary is seeking urgent, immediate protection as her husband has threatened to burn down her home while she and the children are sleeping. He is also frequently parked outside her house day and night, monitoring their movements.

Luckily for Mary, she has submitted her application at the Holland Park Magistrates Court, the local court attended by the Women’s Legal Service duty lawyers.

The duty lawyer is available to provide advice and representation to Mary before, during and after court. Importantly, duty lawyers provide a gendered specialist women’s service and deal with domestic violence and family law on a daily basis.

The duty lawyer physically walks into court with Mary and advocates on her behalf, where she would otherwise be left to face the court and ultimately her abuser, alone. Mary is also offered a follow-up service at the Women’s Legal Service premises in Annerley so further advice and social work assistance can be provided in relation to her family law matters. Assistance is also provided with making an application for legal aid for her domestic violence trial which will determine whether her protection order will be made long term.

Over 90% of case work clients assisted by Women’s Legal Service have experienced domestic violence. The service assists more than 3700 women each year but another 16,000 contact the service seeking assistance. Sadly these women are unable to be assisted due to a lack of capacity and resources.

There has been much media attention on the recommendations relating to specialist domestic violence courts in Queensland. Less attention has been paid to the specific recommendations in relation to the need for a state-wide duty-lawyer service.

The Not Now, Not Ever report specifically provides as follows:-

The Queensland Government establishes a state-wide duty-lawyer service for domestic and family violence matters in Magistrates Courts for both applicants and respondents.

The Queensland Government develops a position description and guidelines for the duty-lawyer service to ensure:

»» Provision of legal advice before and after court appearances

»» Limited assistance with drafting court related documents

»» Provision of advice and referral on related issues (such as family law, child support, childprotection matters)

»» Legal representation during court appearances.

The Queensland Government ensures duty-lawyer service lawyers are:

»» Experienced in the dynamics and challenges of domestic and family violence

»» Able to give family law, child support and child protection advice

»» Operate within a wider integrated service response network, working to prioritise the safety of adult victims and children.

These recommendations are clear and concise in the way that a duty-lawyer service should be delivered, and effectively mirrors the approach the Women’s Legal Service has taken to the delivery of these services at the Holland Park Magistrates Court since 2012.

The Queensland government has recently announced funding of $1.1 million in this financial year to expand the Domestic Violence Duty Lawyer Service to 14 locations through Legal Aid Queensland.The Holland Park Magistrates Court is not one of the 14 locations .

The Queensland government has also recently announced that the Holland Park Magistrate Mr Colin Strofield and Registrar Mr Rob Turra will join the trial specialist Domestic Violence Court in Southport which is a great win for the Gold Coast, but an enormous loss for the Holland Park Magistrates Court integrated response of which both men have played an instrumental role.

Duty lawyers are not only an instrumental part of the court process for victims of domestic violence, they are part of a holistic and integrated response to domestic violence that is critical in addressing safety for those who have experienced domestic violence and their families.

Women’s Legal Service will continue to provide critical duty lawyer services at Holland Park Magistrates Court each Wednesday and are watching with interest the development of the trial Specialist Domestic Violence Courts and Duty Lawyer Services in other courts.

It is important to note that in the short term, the implementation of these measures may mean an increase in the number of people filing applications and seeking domestic violence order protection where there has been limited support in the past.

In the long term, these are critical issues and strategies not only for women experiencing domestic violence like Mary but for the community as a whole in working towards a future free from domestic violence.

For more information about domestic violence visit: www.wlsq.org.au

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence please call 1800 RESPECT.

*Name has been changed.

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