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General family law blogs

Family law in rural, regional and remote Australia: the challenges

By April 24, 2018No Comments

With the Australian Law Reform Commission’s review of the family law system underway, here at Alliance Legal Services, we have been taking a closer look at the content of the ALRC’s recently released Issues Paper.  This week, a brief look at the issues raised in Question 9 of the Issues Paper, which asks, “how can the accessibility of the family law system be improved for people living in rural, regional and remote areas of Australia?”

A nation’s family law system must be accessible to all, and in a vast country like Australia, this poses unique challenges.  While nearly 70% of our citizens live in major cities, 20% live in inner regional areas, 9% in outer regional areas and 2.3% in remote or very remote areas.  Of those in remote and very remote areas, most are Indigenous Australians. The makeup of family structures can vary greatly as well, for example, with a greater proportion of those living in very remote areas living in multi-family households.

Improving accessibility of the family law system for people in areas outside major metropolitan areas involves addressing issues such as:

Geographical barriers

Some regional areas are better serviced by family law services than others, but generally speaking, those people living in rural, regional and remote Australia tend to be subject to geographical barriers to accessing the system and related services. Because many services are located in major metropolitan areas, people experience geographic isolation, and this is made more difficult by the problems of limited public transport or the expense of private transport.

How can remote people access family law services better? When choosing a lawyer, consider choosing one who lives near a court registry, and ask them whether they are happy with phone appointments or audio visual appointments. Most progressive law firms offer Facetime, Messenger, Skype and other conferences (noting of course you will need internet access for these), as well as telephone appointments.  Having a lawyer near a registry means at least they can physically attend court, even if you can’t.

If you are representing yourself, you can ask the court for permission to attend by electronic communication (eg phone) for some court events. A form on the court’s website needs to be completed and filed so the court knows to phone you during the hearing.

Insufficient services

Even in areas where services are available locally, another barrier to accessing the family law system occurs when there are not enough services to avoid a conflict of interest occurring and both parties are unable to obtain advice. A conflict of interest is where a local lawyer acts for one party – they cannot then act for the other party in defended hearings. In many small towns there will be at least 2 lawyers to avoid this problem, but again, you may find a lawyer further away who is happy to take your instructions. The big difficulty is in accessing experts for parenting cases – such as psychologists or psychiatrists – who prepare reports. Again, if you choose a specialist family lawyer, that lawyer should have contacts within the ‘virtual’ community and know who to refer you to for a long distance or virtual appointment with a psychologist. Sometimes travel is unavoidable if you have to be assessed by a court-appointed psychologist, but a good law firm will advise you on when to seek a joint expert outside the court system (you can choose the identity) and when to use the court-appointed one (who might live near the court but far from you).

Cultural barriers

Indigenous Australians can experience more difficulties in accessing the family law system.  As well as well publicised general disadvantages, Indigenous people may speak English as an additional language and barriers to access can arise due to limited availability of interpreter services, or due to interpreters’ limited experience with the family law system. There is also less availability of specialist family law assistance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in rural, regional and remote Australia. Even where mainstream services are available, Indigenous Australians may not engage with them “due to concerns that these are not culturally secure or appropriate”. Alliance Family Law has insufficient understanding of Indigenous issues so we refer matters to the Aboriginal Legal Service where needed, so clients can get expert advice from people in the know.

Family violence issues

People living in rural and remote Australia who may be suffering from family violence issues can also be disadvantaged by a lack of local support services (for example, crisis accommodation. Mental health support and domestic violence advocacy groups). Through our involvement in the Law Council of Australia as members, we join in with submissions for greater funding for remote regions so living far away from a large town doesn’t mean a total lack of services.

“Visibility”

In smaller towns, people wishing to access the family law system can often experience a feeling of “visibility” – the likelihood that someone who has experienced violence and the perpetrator are both known to local support workers. This can influence whether a victim feels safe making disclosures or seeking further assistance.

Suggestions for reform

Ideas that the ALRC canvassed regarding improving access for rural, regional and remote Australians include:

  • Better availability and utilisation of communication technologies for providing services (eg. court appearances, conferencing)
  • Improving people’s digital literacy
  • For indigenous Australians, increasing the availability and family law expertise of local interpreters, improving the cultural competency of mainstream services in geographically distant areas, and improving collaboration with Indigenous-specific services.

Are you living in rural or remote Australia, or you are an Indigenous Australian, and would like to contribute your perspective on issues raised by the ALRC?  You can make your submission here.

Access the full ALRC Issues Paper here.

Do you need assistance with family law matter? Please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Legal Services on (02) 6223 2400. We are pleased to provide audio visual and electronic legal services to clients throughout Australia.

Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Legal Services.

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