Domestic violence victims benefit from partnership between lawyers and hospital staff

August 21st, 2017

Leaving an abusive relationship can be a dangerous and terrifying experience for many women.

There can also be a range of complex legal issues including child custody, intervention orders, tenancy contracts, and financial matters that can create barriers for leaving the relationship.

In a South Australian first, a collaboration between a major hospital and the Legal Services Commission is helping women access vital legal advice to escape violence.

The federally funded initiative allows Lyell McEwin Hospital staff to call in a special unit of lawyers who can provide mobile legal assistance to women at the hospital and domestic violence centres.

Legal Services Commission access services manager Chris Boundy said the lawyers’ mobility was crucial to the project’s success.

“It is a very important initiative, a very important step, because women who are in peril are not certain where to go,” Mr Boundy said.

“They’re not even sure how to reach out and by having this unique partnership with the hospital it is the hospital staff who identify women who could benefit from having some legal advice and then we’re able to respond and be here when we’re needed.

“The important thing is we come to them when it’s convenient and by being notified through health authorities we can have the mobility to ensure they don’t miss the opportunity to get proper legal advice.”

Mr Boundy said the lawyers in the domestic violence unit were well-qualified, empathetic and passionate about helping women get access to justice.

Northern suburbs mother Emma (not her real name) knows first hand the terror of feeling trapped in an abusive relationship.

“I was going through domestic violence at home and being that I wasn’t aware of what was around to help me I was stuck in that sort of position for quite some time,” she said.

Emma said legal advice helped her understand her rights and feel supported when she was confused and scared.

“Now I know where I stand, no matter what he says or does,” she said.

“I know that my child will be OK, and there are courts and laws out there that will stand up for that and keep her protected, as well as me.

Dr Martin Ritossa, a medical director at the Lyell McEwin Hospital, said the hospital had a strong focus on domestic violence.

“They’re often trapped, they often don’t know where to go and this is a great opportunity for the health system to get involved in assisting them,” Dr Ritossa said.

“The more we can collaborate the better and the more services we can provide at the same time the better.”

Hopes program will be expanded

Northern Domestic Violence Service case manager Melanie Dekorte said expert advice and support could make a huge difference to vulnerable women.

“That’s vital in breaking the cycle of domestic violence and just creating that confidence they need to seek support and having that face-to-face contact is absolutely imperative, it’s really important for them,” Ms Dekorte said.

“They’ve been told during their relationships usually that they have no rights, that ‘if you leave me I’ll take the children and take you through [the] Family Court. I’ll keep the house, you’ll be homeless, I’ll cut off financial ties’.

“So when you look at all the different tactics of domestic violence that are used by perpetrators it is overwhelming for a woman to even make the decision to leave that partner in the first place.”

Ms Dekorte said the support was important to help women take back control of their lives.

The initiative is funded for three years under the Federal Government’s Women’s Safety Package and Mr Boundy hopes it can be expanded throughout South Australia.

“We’re hoping that during this three years we can develop a template that will encourage the federal authorities to go on with the funding so that we can hopefully be involved in the establishment of a similar sort of arrangement in other areas of need,” he said.