Managing Partner Sally Nicholes featured on Wednesday on ABC Mornings with Virginia Trioli to discuss family violence and family law in the era of COVID-19. This blog will cover some of the issues covered on the show.
The recent surge in domestic violence cases has been a devastating and serious by-product of coronavirus pandemic.
A public service announcement warning of the heightened risk of family violence is being circulated throughout the state. Since the outbreak of the virus, St Vincent’s Hospital have recorded a steep spike in presentations of family violence related injuries to their emergency departments.
Urgent applications to the Family Court involving child custody issues have increased by 39% in the last four weeks, and by 23% in the Federal Circuit Court. There have been reports of individuals using COVID-19 as a cover to prevent their partners from having access to their children.
The situation begs important questions: how are families going to manage shared custody, and how are urgent family matters being heard in the courts during lockdown?
Lead by the Hon. William Alstergren, Chief Justice of the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court, the family law system has responded to the virus immediately and comprehensively. For example the Chief Justice has brought in a “COVID-19 list” which prioritises urgent parenting matters that deal specifically with COVID-19.
In the first few weeks after COVID-19 was announced in Australia, the Women’s Information Referral Exchange (WIRE) and Nicholes Family Lawyers (NFL) as concerned stakeholders, collaborated to develop an urgent community response to assist those most vulnerable and developed a series of podcasts unpacking what issues were relevant to families and children at risk and what access to justice was available. NFL and WIRE were joined by many concerned stakeholders who participated and supported the podcasts and a webinar including JOY 94.9 Switchboard, Victorian Women’s Lawyers, Domestic Violence Victoria, PANDA and many more (see links to these various organisations’ websites below). The overarching theme is that domestic violence is never acceptable but especially not tolerated at this time and there is assistance and organisations who care. Law Week have published the podcasts as part of their access to justice week between 18 and 24 May 2020.
One of the myths that needed to be debunked was the fallacy that the courts were not open to victims of violence or to family court litigants.
It is important that parents know that the courts remain functional throughout the pandemic. The Chief Justice has written personal releases and practice notes for the courts to distribute to promote the fact that the courts are open and virtual including new practice directions about the use of electronic filing.
The Chief Justice has recently distributed a release about the creation of a COVID-19 list. The direction states inter alia that parents seeking recourse to court for urgent family law issues are guaranteed a hearing within 72 hours of their application, provided that their matter is related to COVID-19. Matters are more likely to be heard within this timeframe if evidence of mediation is provided. However, the need for mediation can be obfuscated in some circumstances where there is an urgent application for a hearing.
The virus also poses a risk to young mothers and people alike who live with their perpetrator and cannot escape due to lockdown restrictions. In these situations it can be impossible to find privacy and call for help, and online programs and support services are now an option.
It is essential that people are aware that when they are at risk, there are always avenue through which to seek help. Be it online or telephone services, community help organisations or recourse to the courts, systems are adapting to the changing times to ensure that the vulnerable have access to the services they require.
The interview is available here (at 00:51): https://www.abc.net.au/radio/melbourne/programs/mornings/mornings/12245922.
The Family Court’s COVID-19 Practice Directions are available here:
Womens Information Referral Exchange (WIRE): https://www.wire.org.au/
Victorian Womens Lawyers (VWL): https://vwl.asn.au/
Domestic Violence Victoria (DVV): http://dvvic.org.au/
Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA): https://www.panda.org.au/
Victoria Law Foundation Law Week: https://lawweek.net.au/