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Divorce clinic for women of diverse cultural backgrounds launched in Canberra

Canberra women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, who are trapped in troubled or violent marriages, are set to have access to free legal services to help them get a divorce.

A new clinic run by the Women's Legal Centre ACT will provide specialised advice and legal representation to women from different cultures who face significant challenges as they try to navigate a foreign legal system and end their marriages.

The divorce clinic will be launched at a breakfast event to mark International Women's Day, which was celebrated on March 8, in Canberra on Friday.

The legal centre's executive director, Heidi Yates, said the clinic would fill a gap in service provision for vulnerable women in the ACT. 

"We think there is a need in the Canberra community to work with women on this issue,"  she said.

"We know that women from [culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds] across Australia experience high levels of domestic violence and it's important for them to have access to expert legal advice and representation."


Ms Yates said many people assumed that applying for a divorce was a simple process, but women from different cultures often struggled to understand the legal system and battled cultural barriers. 

Legal Aid did not assist in divorce matters as the process was generally considered straightforward, and many vulnerable women could not afford to enlist the help of a private lawyer.

That meant many women who needed legal advice and support didn't get the help they needed to apply for and finalise a marriage split.

Ms Yates said the centre's staff dealt with a growing number of women from various cultural backgrounds who found the divorce process difficult and complex.

She said some women who married overseas didn't have a marriage certificate, which was needed as proof of a marriage, either because it had been lost as they fled war or conflict or they simply never got one.

Matters were further complicated if the woman's husband was overseas or could not be found.

"There are also translator and interpreter requirements in relation to affidavits and other legal documents," Ms Yates said.

"It can be very difficult for women who aren't familiar with our legal system." 

The centre received a $24,000 grant from the territory government to set up the clinic at the end of last year. 

Those funds would enable the centre to employ an in-house lawyer to co-ordinate a roster of private family law solicitors who would provide advice on a volunteer basis.

Ms Yates said the women also often battled negative attitudes towards divorce.

"It is a significant issue for women from some religious and cultural backgrounds and one that can have safety implications for the woman seeking a divorce."

That meant it was important the clinic offered an holistic approach to legal services which would include safety planning for women at risk, she said. 

Women's Legal Centre ACT solicitor Allison Munro said divorce was often a crucial step to provide social and economic freedom needed for women to move on with their lives. 

"We hope that this service will allow more women who are seeking a divorce to escape an unhappy or violent relationship the ability to obtain one, she said.

"We also hope that addressing their legal problems in safe, supportive and confidential environment will give these women the confidence to seek legal assistance in the future, should they need to do so." 

Funding for the service comes as federal government cuts threaten funding for on-call interpreters used by the ACT Domestic Violence Crisis Service support workers for clients who did not speak English.

The divorce clinic is among several measures announced in for the ACT recent weeks in an attempt to curb rates of domestic violence and meet skyrocketing demand for services and support for victims in the capital.