ACT News

Canberra's legal aid services experience huge spike in demand for domestic violence help

The rate at which Canberrans are accessing Legal Aid ACT for domestic violence matters has almost doubled in the past three years, prompting the organisation to funnel more of its resources towards victim support as uncertainty looms over federal government funding.

Legal Aid ACT chief executive Dr John Boersig has joined with community legal centres to call for funding from all ...
Legal Aid ACT chief executive Dr John Boersig has joined with community legal centres to call for funding from all levels of government. Photo: Graham Tidy

Legal Aid ACT chief executive John Boersig said the service prioritised domestic violence matters and had employed extra legal staff in its specialised unit to cope with the huge surge in demand.

Dr Boersig also joined calls from the wider community for an urgent review into how the territory deals with domestic and family violence. 

The territory's Legal Aid domestic violence unit is on track to record a 29 per cent spike in domestic violence work by the end of June when compared with the previous financial year.

It had also experienced a 46 per cent jump in demand for services over the past three financial years.

"What those figures demonstrate is the long term trend and demand is going sharply up."

Dr Boersig said the spike took in all services provided through the organisation's domestic violence and personal protection orders unit, which is based in the ACT Magistrates Court.

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"That increase is looking at the number of grants we make in domestic violence cases, assistance with interim applications and advice, as well as initial advocacy and people calling in on our helpline."

Dr Boersig said the jump in calls for help meant the organisation had to increase staffing levels and the domestic violence unit had grown from 1.5 lawyers to 2.5 lawyers.

"I think one of the most positive aspects of this is at least people are talking about it, particularly in this past year.

"That's why I really support a review of how we're dealing with domestic violence."

Canberra's Legal Aid branch is among community legal organisations which have already had funding stripped dramatically by the federal government and have braced for further reductions.

The previous budget cuts came despite a Productivity Commission report released last year that urged for increased funding to community legal centres, after it identified concerning gaps in access to free legal help in family law matters.

ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell this week called for a bipartisan approach to tackling domestic violence and noted the Productivity Commission's recommendation of $200 million in national funding for legal assistance.

Dr Boersig said Legal Aid ACT had already lost $300,000 in federal government funding and $415,000 in funds from the ACT Law Society.

The organisation had promising discussions with the ACT government in regards to future funding but said any further federal budget cuts would have an impact on the services the organisation could provide, he said.

"At the moment we're trying to put extra resources into domestic violence work, so we're preferencing those matters to meet demand."

"We'll be looking to government over the next few months to see how they do respond to this.

"We're hopeful money will come through from the budgetary process, but we won't know that until late June."

Dr Boersig said lawyers provided an important service and matters around seeking formal protection from domestic violence were complex.

Victims experienced emotions which ranged from embarrassment to terror, which often meant they were reticent to seek help. 

"Everybody wants a happy home, and they don't have a happy home and they're not always getting assistance when they should," he said.

"And whenever a domestic violence order is dramatically disregarded, such as a very violent assault in public, it must give all other people who are getting them cause to be concerned or to think twice."

Dr Boersig believed police needed to exert their emergency powers to issue interim orders at the time violence occurred, rather than the onus being on women to approach the legal system themselves to seek protection.

"We need to shift that and take the burden off victims

"There should be swift and early intervention to protect victims and children so the person is out of the home.

"But those orders should then be able to be reviewed in the court and victims need to be consulted about the terms of any orders."