Attwood Marshall Lawyers Family Law Special Counsel, Michael Twohill joined Robyn Hyland on Radio 4CRB to discuss one of Australia’s major health and welfare issues, domestic and family violence, with a specific focus on financial abuse in relationships. This is such an important topic to continue to raise awareness about and encourage discussions so that people can identify the warning signs and know where to turn for help. Arguably, financial abuse is just as debilitating and cruel as physical abuse, but is often overlooked or downplayed.
What is financial abuse?
Financial abuse is a largely underreported and somewhat “hidden” form of domestic and family violence.
Research has shown that women are the primary victims of financial abuse with nearly 16 per cent of Australian women experiencing this form of abuse. It has also been reported that approximately 8 per cent of men experience financial abuse. Those most at risk are represented by women and men aged between 40-49 years, as well as individuals with a disability or long-term health condition.
In 2020, it was reported that over 600,000 Australians suffered financial abuse.
Financial abuse can involve:
- one party taking complete control over the other person’s finances
- one party drip-feeding the other person an “allowance”
- one party monitoring every cent the other person spends or forcing them to seek permission to buy certain things
- one party racking up debt in the other person’s name
- someone stopping the other person from studying or working to control income
- someone forcing their partner to sign over assets or take out loans in their name against their wishes.
In many cases, victims of financial abuse feel trapped and powerless and they can’t see any way out of their situation.
It has been said that financial abuse can be a precursor to physical violence, and in many cases, we have seen that to be true. Victims of financial abuse often also experience physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, violent behaviours, or a combination of all of these types of conduct.
Separation and divorce: what can happen when you separate but have had no financial autonomy or control
It is often the case that women who have suffered financial abuse during a relationship will face financial hardship when going through separation or divorce.
If a woman has no control over finances or has significant debt in her name, she can find it difficult to secure housing, financially support her dependents, and may not be able to pay for legal representation for a property settlement or other family law matter to try to move forward with her life.
In some cases, the financial abuse may not have been happening prior to separation and may only begin after separation. This may show itself when a former partner cuts off access to bank accounts and credit cards, hides assets, drains joint bank accounts, or refuses to pay joint debts or child support.
Property settlements can take time to negotiate and settle which means during that time a woman can lack the funds they need to support themselves and their children whilst waiting for a settlement to be finalised. In many cases, the non-financial partner can claim spousal maintenance from their former financial partner to help them meet their weekly financial expenses.
It is important to get legal advice from a family lawyer who specialises in this area of law and has the expertise to handle matters that involve domestic and family violence. A family lawyer can secure urgent spousal maintenance which can assist with immediate financial support until a hearing can be set down for spousal maintenance orders and property settlement arrangements.
These are just some of the issues that play on many people’s minds who find themselves in this situation which may cause them hesitation in taking the necessary steps to be free from their partner who is causing them harm.
What’s being done to address this issue
The Australian Government is developing the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022-2032 which will replace the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 which ends mid this year.
The new national plan is being developed in conjunction with survivors of domestic and family violence, specialist services, health care representatives, representatives from law and justice sectors, community groups, and all levels of government, ensuring all stakeholders play a role in shaping the plan to end violence against women.
The goal of the national plan is to:
- focus on prevention to stop violence before it starts
- determine what investment is needed by all governments for prevention, intervention, response, and recovery
- recognise and set an action plan to respond to family and domestic violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
- work with men and boys to disrupt and prevent the attitudes and behaviours that can lead to violence and financial abuse
- improve the justice system to ensure people impacted by family and domestic violence, including financial abuse, are able to achieve justice and people using violence and abuse are held to account.
How are the courts addressing the issue of domestic and family violence – and is it working?
The Family Law system has evolved since the first National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 was developed, with a series of reforms taking place to help families separate in a safe, child-centred supportive, accessible and timely way.
The reforms have ensured there is a more coordinated approach and greater awareness of family safety issues in Australia’s family law system, however, there is a way to go to reduce the widespread nature of family and domestic violence.
Lawyers tend to be at the coalface of these issues and see it from both sides. Every day we see evidence of all types of violence in the community and abuse continues to be an epidemic with little sign of immediate improvement.
It seems that no matter what the courts, domestic violence organisations, police, or local, state and federal governments do, the situation has not improved. Although the stakeholders are trying to implement strategies, raise awareness, and stop violence, in reality, they are failing.
We believe the courts need to implement more severe penalties for domestic and family violence because until this happens, the situation is unlikely to improve.
Where to turn to stop financial abuse
If you are in a relationship and are a victim of financial abuse, the first port of call should be to make an appointment with a lawyer who practices in the area of domestic and family violence and family law.
An experienced lawyer can put you in touch with organisations that can provide immediate urgent assistance including:
- urgent temporary and permanent accommodation
- food and personal hampers
- financial assistance.
Centrelink have fabulous customer service personnel who can organise immediate financial packages. Most of the organisations such as 1800 RESPECT are great for this type of assistance.
There are also free counselling and support services that can guide you through this difficult time in your life and help you with the immediate steps to remove yourself from the situation. These include:
- 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – a national helpline that provides confidential information, counselling and support to people impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence and abuse.
- Men’s Referral Service (1300 766 491). This service aims to empower and support men who are worried about their behaviour.
- Relationships Australia (1300 364 277) a leading provider of relationship support services for individuals, families and communities.
- Lifeline (13 11 14) a national charity that provides crisis support 24 hours a day.
If you are suffering any form of abuse and you are in fear of your safety your first contact MUST be to dial 000. Your local police station is fully equipped to provide immediate assistance to you. You do not need to suffer in silence.
Many people stay in a violent relationship because they see no way out of the situation. The fear of the unknown keeps them in the relationship. There can be a light at the end of the dark tunnel but in most cases, you can’t do it alone and that is where you need to be strong enough to seek assistance.
Attwood Marshall Lawyers are here to help
If you are experiencing financial abuse or other forms of domestic and family violence, our experienced family law team are available to discuss your circumstances and provide you with guidance quickly and confidentially.
It is our goal to resolve matters between parties in a way that does not cause any more conflict than is necessary and to ensure your safety is paramount. We want to help you move on with your life and be financially secure and physically safe. Any act of abuse, whether that be emotional, physical, sexual, or financial abuse, is not okay!
Our experienced team are ready to help you. For advice or fast action, contact Family Law DVO Paralegal, Brittany Watsford, on direct line 07 5506 8264, email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone our 24-hour phone line on 1800 621 071.
Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Month – May 2021: A system that can’t meet the demand – Part 2