ACT News

Vulnerable Canberra women turned away from legal services and refuge as funds dry up

A legal service for vulnerable women will be forced to turn 500 Canberrans away due to federal funding cuts, while a local refuge has warned it is struggling to find beds for those who desperately need help.

The Women's Legal Centre, whose solicitors support women across the ACT and surrounds, is facing a loss of $100,000 in federal funding in two years.

Canberra-based Beryl Women's Refuge manager Robyn Martin.
Canberra-based Beryl Women's Refuge manager Robyn Martin. Photo: Graham Tidy

The cut will mean 500 women will not be supported by the centre over the next two years. 

Two-thirds are likely to be the victims of domestic violence and two-thirds have no-income or earn less than $35,000.

Executive director Heidi Yates says the Women's Legal Centre will have to knock back about 500 requests for help over ...
Executive director Heidi Yates says the Women's Legal Centre will have to knock back about 500 requests for help over the next two years. Photo: Graham Tidy

The cuts - which begin to bite in July, as $30,000 in Law Society funding also dries up - will leave a growing number of the ACT's most vulnerable women stranded. That includes a growing number who aren't eligible for Legal Aid but can't afford a private lawyer.

"It leaves them alone, and it leaves them unsafe," Women's Legal Centre ACT executive director Heidi Yates said. 

"We are the first port of call for vulnerable women experiencing domestic and sexual violence across all socio-economic backgrounds in different areas of Canberra."

Hundreds of people, including Australian Services Union members, rallied against federal government funding changes for community services and on other funding issues outside Parliament House on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Canberra-based Beryl Women's Refuge has warned it is under-resourced and in a "very vulnerable position" due to funding cuts. 

Manager Robyn Martin said Tara Costigan's violent killing on the weekend was likely to prompt many women to seek help and feel an urgency to leave violent relationships.

"The more awareness being raised in the community around domestic and family violence I think more women are going to be looking for safe accommodation," she said.

But frontline staff at Beryl and several other ACT services were in the devastating position of knowing there was increasing demand, and being unable to extend help.

"Beryl Women's Refuge has no vacancy," she said.

"When we do have a vacancy there is only one space, but there may be three or more women vying for it. We are forced to choose who we think is at a greater risk of harm."

Turning away women who were strong enough to seek help from services was dangerous and served as a deterrent, she said.

She said women were regularly told there were no vacancies, assessed by services and all too often put on a waiting list.

"In many cases it's not able to happen in time," she said. "The opportunity for us to intervene and support someone to make a change in their lives and leave a violent relationship is lost."

Ms Martin said a discussion needed to be had around family violence protection orders and what strategies were working to protect vulnerable women.

"Not in all cases, but in some being notified can escalate an already violent situation and we need to think about strategies that work better to safeguard parties involved," she said.

"I'd like to see greater protection whether that's more crisis accommodation for women or another form of protection through the police." 

Meanwhile federal and state governments will spend $30 million on a national awareness campaign to stop domestic violence as Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced he will meet with Labor to discuss a bipartisan approach to the issue, following Labor leader Bill Shorten's call for a national crisis summit on violence against women.

Mr Shorten has proposed that $70 million be committed to ensure those suffering from family violence can access critical services, including almost $50 million for legal services including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services. 

Labor's families spokeswoman and former Beryl volunteer Jenny Macklin, speaking at the refuge's 40th birthday on Wednesday, said it was important governments funded accommodation for women and children affected by violence but also programs that helped prevent violence from an early age.

Ms Macklin welcomed a national summit and extra funding for initiatives like community legal services, which she singled out as one of areas in most need of funding. 

"We want to make sure that if women have to go to court they don't have to go it alone, that's why we really want to put so much extra money into community legal services."