Family violence can include denying financial autonomy

1-March-2014 Family Law By Simone Green

In light of the recent high profile murder case involving Simon Gittany *, we thought it was timely to look at the definition of violence in the Family Law Act and how the Court deals with issues of domestic violence.

When we hear the phrase family violence we usually think of physical abuse against a partner and/or children of the relationship. The family violence provisions within the Family Law Act were expanded in recent years to broaden the definition of family violence to also include psychological and financial violence. Violence of this kind is also very serious and can impact the abused partner’s ability to leave the relationship and affect the emotional wellbeing of the abused partner and any children of the relationship.

How the Court defines family violence

The Family Law Act now defines family violence as violent, threatening or other behaviour by a person that coerces or controls a member of the person’s family (the family member), or causes the family member to be fearful. So this could include assault, including sexual assault, stalking, making repeated derogatory taunts, isolation through denying contact with friends and family and/or culture, intentional damage to property or harm to animals, unreasonably denying financial autonomy and withholding the financial support necessary to meet reasonable living expenses for the family member and/or their children.

The Family Courts are very aware that violence in relationships can greatly reduce the abused partner’s ability to negotiate on equal terms, if at all. For this reason and to afford as much protection as possible to the abused party, the requirement for parties to attend mediation for parenting matters may be dispensed with in circumstances where family violence is alleged. In these circumstances, it will be necessary to obtain an exemption prior to filing an application for Orders in the Courts.

From a Family Law property aspect, there are steps we can take to obtain interim financial relief.

Streeterlaw’s Family Law Specialist Simone Green said the enormous amount of media coverage in the Gittany case had encouraged more women to report abuse they were suffering.

“This high profile case highlighted the sad fact that an abusive relationship can sometimes lead to the victim being murdered and that Australian women who find themselves in such a relationship need to have the courage to come forward and seek assistance to escape their situation,” Ms Green said.

“If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, it is important to seek appropriate help. The domestic violence liaison officer at the police station is often a good place to start in circumstances of physical violence, intimidation and threats of harm and harassment. They may refer you to other services, such as counselling and crisis care. We encourage you to seek legal advice as soon as practicable to explore all of your options.”

Ms Green said abusive partners often threaten to simply cut off all funds to those who are financially dependent on them, leaving them without any money to support themselves or their children. But she said the Courts can quickly address that.

“From a Family Law property aspect, there are steps we can take to obtain interim financial relief, by way of spousal maintenance upon separation from the abusive partner in circumstances where the other partner has the means to pay,” she said. “It may also be possible to obtain an order for exclusive occupation of the family home through the Courts.”

* (In July 2011, Simon Gittany killed his fiancée Lisa Harnum by throwing her from a 15th floor apartment balcony after months of controlling and abusive behaviour towards her. He was sentenced in February 2014 to a minimum of 18 years in jail.)

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