Last night’s Federal Budget announcement included welcome funding for legal help to support women experiencing family violence and people with intersecting legal and mental health issues, but is it enough?

Health Justice Partnerships

$17mil will be directed towards Health Justice Partnerships (HJPs) and Domestic Violence Units through the 2021 Budget, but a stronger commitment to ongoing funding is needed to continue and expand these vital services.

Integrated services such as our Bendigo Family Violence Justice Partnership with the Centre for Non-Violence and our Therapeutic Justice Partnership with Maryborough District Health Service have been critical to providing timely and accessible legal help to women experiencing family violence during COVID-19. A majority of clients accessing these services are also experiencing complex mental health issues that are contributing to or exacerbated by their legal problems.

Health Justice Australia have previously mapped the intersections between legal and mental health issues, and highlighted the important role that legal help plays in holistic mental health care. You can read their report here. More recent studies have also highlighted how vital integrated models of legal service delivery are in responding to changing community needs, particularly in times of crisis, and the opportunities that exist for HJPs to work in partnership with government to rapidly identify and address local needs. See Collaboration through the Covid19 crisis: lessons for systemic change (Health Justice Australia, 2021) and Meeting people where they are: delivering integrated community legal services (Federation of Community Legal Centres Victoria, 2020).

Small pots of short-term funding make it difficult for integrated and health justice partnerships to retain staff, to ensure continuity of service to clients, and to build and maintain trusted and effective partnerships. This requires long-term investment and commitment.

We are hopeful that an ongoing commitment to funding health justice and integrated legal services will be included in the Victorian State Budget, due to be handed down next week on Thursday 20th May.

Family violence legal assistance

We were pleased to see a number of legal help initiatives for people experiencing family violence included in the 2021 Budget, including $129mil announced for women’s legal services to respond to increasing demand for family violence legal support. This investment is much needed.

In regional communities such as Bendigo, Maryborough, Echuca, Shepparton, Seymour and Benalla, we know that women struggle to access Melbourne-based specialist legal services. Further investment in regional community legal services is also needed to address issues of postcode injustice, and to ensure that all women have access to legal help.

Between our Loddon Campaspe and Goulburn Valley Community Legal Centres, ARC Justice services ten regional courts across central and northern Victoria. This includes the newly established Specialist Family Violence Court (SFVC) in Shepparton, with construction underway on the SFVC in Bendigo. The demand for family violence legal support across these courts, and stemming from the newly established Orange Door family violence service hubs, has increased dramatically in recent years. This demand, on top of the additional costs of providing services in regional Victoria, means that local legal services are under considerable strain.

Further funding is needed to increase the capacity of Community Legal Centres in regional communities to provide early intervention (pre-court) legal advice to victim/survivors of family violence, and ongoing assistance with related family law, child protection, and civil law matters commonly associated with family violence, such as tenancy, credit and debt.

Our partners at Djirra and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, including Family Violence Prevention Legal Services (FVPLS), are also struggling to keep up with demand. Although $26mil has been allocated to the FVPLS sector in this year’s budget, this is far less than the $28 million per annum that FVPLSs have been urgently calling for to avoid turning Aboriginal women away.

Improved funding across a wider range of specialist and generalist legal services in regional and rural areas is absolutely critical to stop vulnerable people, including women experiencing family violence and people with mental health issues, from falling through service gaps.

We hope to see further investment in regional community legal services in the Victorian State Budget next week.

Funding for Aboriginal-led justice initiatives and legal assistance

As noted by Change the Record, Australia’s only First Nations-led justice coalition, the 2021 Budget fails to adequately or meaningful invest in critical justice reforms and ‘closing the gap’. Key areas of concerns include:

ARC Justice is committed to listening to and amplifying the voices of First Nations Peoples and advocacy services in their ongoing fight for justice. We encourage you to read Change the Record’s full budget statement here.

Social housing

Lack of access to affordable housing in regional Victoria remains one of the biggest challenges for our clients, particularly women experiencing family violence, single mothers and young people. Budget 2021 failed to deliver adequate investment in new social housing. As noted by Kate Colvin, Spokesperson for the Everybody’s Home Campaign, social housing investment is trending down, while rent in regional areas is skyrocketing, vacancy rates are low, and unemployment is still high, with no meaningful increase in Jobseeker on the horizon. The Federal Government has missed an opportunity to invest in the future by make social housing and associated job creation the centerpiece of our COVID-19 recovery. We hope for a stronger response to this pressing issue from the State Government in their budget next week.

For a summary of key Federal Budget announcements click here.