The Hume Riverina Community Legal Service has been running since 1999, delivering free legal assistance to thousands of people in that time. We are one of the few community legal centres in Australia with a cross border focus: we support people from the Southern Riverina of New South Wales to north-eastern Victoria, in an area covering about 77,000 square kilometres.
We are adaptable in the way we connect with our communities, but we find that face-to-face legal advice for people who are experiencing hardship and vulnerability is crucial to creating connections and trust that lead to the best outcomes. This has been a challenge during the continuous lockdowns and border closures since July 2020.
Outside of Covid restrictions causing us to cease travel, our outreach lawyers clock up thousands of kilometres a year heading to Deniliquin and Corowa on a fortnightly basis to give free legal advice. It’s almost a six-hour round trip to Deni, with the obligatory coffee stop along the way. We are often joined on outreach by the financial counsellors from Upper Murray Family Care, with who we work closely.
Our service grows every year. Recently, we’ve run successful projects to assist young people experiencing domestic violence, as well as having an increased focus on helping victim-survivors to resolve the often-overwhelming multiple legal issues they can experience.
Laws specific to regional, rural and remote communities
Daily life on the border can be tough. People living in regional, rural, and remote communities like ours have difficulty accessing a range of services that people in cities often take for granted, like public transport, mental health support, and specialist health care, to name a few.
Despite our best efforts, people also struggle to access free, independent legal advice. Early legal assistance is so important in rural areas. If someone can’t pay a fine, for example, they can lose their driver’s licence and, given the lack of public transport in the region and the heavy reliance on cars, this can lead to them losing their job. The loss of income can mean not being able to pay rent and losing housing. The loss of access to a car can also mean not being able to visit children, care for family members, or seek health care. Offering timely and accessible legal support helps people to navigate these daily issues. Intervening early helps to stop problems compounding and spiralling out of control, which keeps people in safer and healthier situations.
This postcode injustice is compounded in cross-border environments. Many services, where they do exist, are bound by state funding agreements. This means a domestic violence service located in Victoria may not be able to help a victim-survivor in NSW, even if they’re the closest available service. Also families engaged with state-based child protection services can fall through the gaps when they move interstate. It is common for people to cross the border to access housing, education or work opportunities.
We see programs that have been rolled out in the cities, or in other regional areas, having no real benefit or flow-on to people living in another rural community. We are continually faced with clients that we are unable to assist, and have nowhere to refer them. The impacts of this are far-reaching, falling heavily on both clients and practitioners.
The experiences of cross-border communities during COVID-19 lockdowns illustrate some of the difficulties we face in our day-to-day lives. Public health orders, which often changed daily, differed in NSW and Victoria, and created widespread confusion and uncertainty. Many people wouldn’t, or couldn’t, cross the border for fear of being fined or stopped by police. People with casual employment were particularly impacted, many families were separated, and some people lost access to vital support services, which had flow-on negative effects for their mental and physical health.
To address these injustices, governments must work together to ensure the particular needs and challenges of regional, rural and remote communities are considered in all legislation and policies, as well as when it comes to allocating resources to infrastructure and services. The Federal Government should also consider commissioning a ‘border anomalies’ study to enable a more detailed analysis of how these cross-border problems impact communities and services on-the-ground.
Addressing domestic and family violence in cross-border communities
Domestic violence in regional Victoria and New South Wales is endemic, and its impacts are devastating. Compared to women living in major cities, women in regional, rural and remote communities are more likely to have experienced domestic and family violence, and 24 times more likely to be hospitalised for family or domestic abuse.
Like much of regional NSW, our community is beset by an acute shortage of appropriate housing, and a worsening homelessness crisis. People in our region struggle to find safe and secure housing when they need it, because there are so few genuinely affordable houses available to rent, and limited social and community housing. This can have flow-on effects for women trying to leave violent relationships and families involved in the child protection system, as housing uncertainty disrupts families’ ability to reunite, and leaves women and children experiencing family violence with an unenviable choice between homelessness and staying in a violent home.
The link between safe, stable housing and domestic violence is well established. Unsafe housing conditions such as overcrowding can exacerbate violence. This heightened vulnerability disproportionately affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. When escaping an abusive relationship, many women and children are forced to leave their homes and struggle to find suitable long-term accommodation. In fact, the most common reason that people give when seeking assistance from government-funded homelessness services is that they are experiencing domestic or family violence.
However, government provision of transitional housing to support people in times of crisis is not enough: women and children need access to long-term, affordable, and stable accommodation, so they can rebuild their lives and find safety and security. A substantial increase in social and community housing in regional and cross-border communities would allow women to seek safety and stay in their homes. It would also allow the person who uses emotionally abusive or violent behaviour to find alternative housing and provide a foundation for them to engage in positive behaviour change programs.
Inconsistent laws across jurisdictions
Isolation, distance and lack of services certainly exacerbates the risk of domestic violence in rural, regional and remote communities. In cross-border communities different policing models and legislative inconsistencies between jurisdictions make seeking safety even more difficult for many victim-survivors. In Australia, every state and territory defines domestic violence differently. These inconsistencies are particularly problematic in cross-border areas. When people need to report an incident of family violence, or breaches of Family Violence Intervention Orders (FVIOs) or Apprehended Violence Orders (AVOs), they’re often confused about where to go – Victoria Police or New South Wales Police? Victim-survivors are often “re-directed” to the other state, creating additional barriers to reporting the violence, and getting the assistance they need. Often the process is just too difficult, and women will not persist, potentially resulting in increased safety risks.
A consistent, national definition of domestic and family violence would significantly reduce these problems. This reform, which many frontline advocates have called for, would move us towards a whole-of-system, national approach to tackling domestic and family violence. Another area in which nationally-consistent legislation would be a positive change is in laws regarding abuse against children. For instance, how children should be considered and protected under the state-based Orders. National harmonisation of Apprehended Violence Orders (AVOs) and Domestic Violence Orders (DVOs) would afford victim-survivors greater legal protection.
Fines and domestic violence reform
In Victoria, victim-survivors of family and domestic violence are eligible to have their fines withdrawn through the Fines Victoria Family Violence Scheme. In our view, NSW should adopt a similar scheme. Victim-survivors of domestic violence commonly experience debt, economic insecurity and financial hardship often as a result of financial abuse. As a community, we should be doing everything we can to make it fairer and easier for victim-survivors of domestic violence to have their fines waived, regardless of which state they may live in.
As a community legal centre working in a cross-border region, we are well placed to see the intersections of multiple legal systems – NSW, Victoria, the Commonwealth. This gives us a unique insight into what works and what doesn’t. Our calls for nationally-consistent domestic violence legislation, increased social housing, and legislative reform that properly accounts for regional and rural specificities would ensure that all communities, including our cross-border communities, would be safer and healthier places to live.