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Eaton, Kaz --- "One size does not fit all: the legal needs of women in regional, rural and remote Australia" [2001] AltLawJl 20; (2001) 26(2) Alternative Law Journal 64

One Size Does Not Fit All

A discussion of the first national conference on the legal needs of women in regional rural and remote Australia.

Kaz Eaton[*]

There was a conference. Like other conferences there were speakers, presentations, workshops and lots of informal networking. So what was different about this one?

When 155 people, mostly women, came from all over Australia and gathered in Albury Wodonga in June 2000, it was the first such concentration of attention on the legal needs of women in regional, rural and remote (RRR)* Australia. In fact it was the first conference of any kind to look at legal needs in RRR Australia. This article is about how we got together, what we learned and what we believe needs to happen next.

How we got together

You could say that the conference arrived at the intersection of two movements. One is the movement for equality for women before the law. The other is the movement for a fair go for people who live outside our capital cities.

The movement for women’s equality before the law gained substantial impetus in 1994 with the release of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Report No 69 Equality Before the Law.[1] In response to this report, the Commonwealth government announced a Justice Strategy with funding in the 1995/96 budget for women’s legal services and indigenous women’s legal programs in every State and Territory. This strategy was in response to findings in the report that women were legally disadvantaged in a variety of ways, that the existing women’s legal services in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne provided an effective model for reducing that disadvantage, and that indigenous women were particularly poorly served by both existing mainstream and Aboriginal legal aid services.

Both the women’s legal services and the Indigenous women’s legal programs quickly formed themselves into active national networks. These networks have operated on voluntary effort and, despite applications and lobbying, without government funding for network secretariat functions. In the case of the National Network of Women’s Legal Services (NNWLS), the voluntary effort is supplemented by a self-imposed levy on members for coordination of work on national policy issues. The National Network of Indigenous Women’s Legal Services (NNIWLS) has until recently operated from within existing resources. Both networks operate within and with the support of the National Association of Community Legal Centres.

A further development following the release of Equality Before the Law was the coming together of a wide range of organisations and individuals with an interest in promoting women’s equality before the law, to form the National Women’s Justice Coalition Inc (NWJC) in February 1995. The NWJC supports and is committed to the implementation of the recommendations of the Equality Before the Law reports. It also hosts a major information and networking project called the Australian Virtual Centre for Women and the Law.[2]

Coincidentally, in 1994 the first International Conference for Women in Agriculture was held in Melbourne with a strong focus on legal issues for women in rural areas. Of particular concern was the legal effect of the categorisation in legal proceedings of farming women as ‘non productive “sleeping” partners’, especially on the award of damages in negligence cases. This issue of legal recognition of the value of women’s unpaid work was referred to the ALRC for consideration and included in the Equality Before the Law report.[3]

The gradual withdrawal of both private and public services from non-metropolitan areas has seen a new activism by people in RRR areas to protect their livelihoods, their services and their communities. Public demonstrations over such events as bank branch closures and rising fuel prices have become frequent news items in the living rooms of city dwellers. The most notable political outcome of the dissatisfaction of country people with the decline in their services and living standards was in evidence in the 1998 Queensland, the 1999 Victorian and the 2001 Western Australian State elections where voters turned away from their traditional parties in once safe conservative rural electorates.

Commonwealth and State governments have responded to the concerns of country people over recent years with substantial policy and program activity over virtually all areas of government. This has included two main initiatives of the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department to improve access to the law for people in RRR Australia. These are the establishment over the past two years of 11 new community legal services in regional centres around the country, and the announcement of two new technology legal access initiatives which have been merged into what is now known as the Law By Telecommunications project, or LBT.[4]

Amid concerns by women’s organisations and the RRR Network of the National Association of Community Legal Centres that these initiatives were being undertaken without a proper understanding of the legal needs of women in RRR areas or their difficulties accessing existing services, the National Women’s Justice Coalition and the Albury Wodonga Community Legal Service joined forces to organise the conference held last June.

Funding for the initial scoping study to explore conference themes was jointly provided by the NSW and Victorian Law Foundations. The conference was then presented by the NWJC in partnership with the Albury Wodonga Community Legal Service. Other sponsors for the conference included the Family Law and Legal Assistance Division of the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, Law Foundation of NSW, Stegley Foundation, the Law Society of South Australia, the Northern Territory Law Society Public Purposes Trust and the Department of Natural Resources and Environment Victoria. And so ‘Through Our Eyes — A National Conference on the Legal Needs of Women in Regional Rural and Remote Australia’ was held at Albury on 14–15 June 2000.

What did we learn?

What is immediately apparent is that the incredible geographic diversity in Australia is matched or even surpassed by the cultural, social and economic diversity within the population living in RRR areas. Stereotypical images of ‘the bush’ and the people who live there are not helpful in understanding the diversity nor in developing policy and programs to serve diverse needs. Life for a woman involved in running a successful family business in, say, Newcastle (which has a larger population than Darwin, Canberra or Hobart but is classed as regional) is dramatically different to life for an Aboriginal woman caring for an adult child disabled by petrol sniffing in a remote Northern Territory community.

A repeated theme throughout the presentations and workshops of the conference was the need to recognise the particularity of each community in the assessment of need and planning of services. A common planning error identified was the development by government agencies of service models that were appropriate for city locations and the application of those models to RRR locations where they were not suited to local needs or social dynamics. The need to consult each community about its needs and the best means by which those needs might be served rather than making assumptions based on city experiences or experiences in other RRR communities was stressed repeatedly.

The need for recognition of these differences is nowhere more marked than in considering the needs of Indigenous women. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women led the conference to a unanimous statement identifying Indigenous women as still the most profoundly legally disadvantaged group in Australia.

In the context of this diversity there were some key factors which emerged as relevant in considering the issues at hand.


A quick look at basic health, economic and educational indicators shows multiple levels of disadvantage:

• The RRR population is aging at a faster rate than the urban dwelling population.[5]

RRR households have an average weekly income of $537 per week compared to $706 for city dwellers.[6]

Health indicators are poorer for RRR dwellers with higher rates of heart disease, psychiatric disorders and strokes, and lower life expectancy. Health services are also poorer with an estimated shortage of between 500 and 1900 General Practitioners to cover the basic health needs of RRR communities.[7]

RRR communities have lower high school completion rates, with progressively fewer RRR residents accessing tertiary education.[8]


There is no national or even statewide research specifically focusing on RRR legal needs in Australia and no research on the legal needs of women in RRR Australia. Some communities have undertaken their own studies but most have not been published or widely disseminated. Minor references have been made in more general reports to increased disadvantage for women arising from distance or remoteness from services, but how their legal needs may differ as well as the difficulties in accessing services have not been examined in any detail.[9] Yet the Commonwealth government is making decisions on major new initiatives without the benefit of this information.

The Australian Legal Assistance Forum (ALAF)[10] undertook the first ever review of legal aid provider statistics relating to service delivery in RRR Australia in order to try to inform the conference about the nature and level of legal services currently provided to women in RRR Australia.[11] Richard Coates, speaking for ALAF, expressed concerns about lack of consistency in data collection and, in some instances, the outright lack of data. Even comparisons between the data of Legal Aid Commissions, the most ‘alike’ of the legal aid providers, were found to be difficult.[12]

Service needs

The conference challenged the common assumption that the legal needs of women everywhere are the same and that their disadvantage arises solely from distance as a barrier to accessing services. Legal issues arise from life circumstances and where these circumstances are different, the needs will often be different and what might be effective legal responses may well be different also. In particular, women’s experience of violence and their options for dealing with that violence appear to be quite different in RRR areas than in the city for a number of reasons, including lack of anonymity in small communities, physical isolation, police known socially to the perpetrator (for example, they play sport together), delays in police response due to distance, different police response due to distance (for example, perpetrator more likely to get a warning than to be arrested if it is a long way to the nearest lock up), lack of other community supports such as domestic violence workers or shelters, prevalence of firearms and other weapons, community pressure to stay with the perpetrator and, for Aboriginal women, the additional difficulty of looking to non-Aboriginal police personnel for assistance.[13]

In rural communities, the particular difficulties of women who contribute to family farming businesses without recognition of the value of their paid and unpaid contribution to the farm create particular legal problems in situations of domestic violence and relationship breakdown. According to Associate Professor Margaret Alston, from the Centre for Rural Social Research at Charles Sturt University, 50% of farms now rely on income from outside the farm and 80% of this off-farm income is generated by women.[14] The Conference expressed concern about the impact on rural women of proposed amendments to the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) which provide for binding financial agreements (including pre-nuptial agreements). Participants considered that a likely outcome of these changes would be legally binding agreements that failed to acknowledge the extent of women’s contributions in farming families. This legislation came into effect as the Family Law Amendment Act 2000 (Cth) in late December 2000.

Service delivery

An immediate issue in the delivery of legal services to clients in RRR areas is that they are more expensive.[15] Given the economic disadvantage experienced by women, this additional expense is likely to impact more severely on women than men. Coates points out that this disadvantage is not necessarily eliminated by a grant of legal aid. As family law cases are limited to grants of $10,000 per party to the dispute, it follows that a woman in a RRR area whose legal case costs are higher than a city woman in similar circumstances will reach that funding cap more rapidly, and thus will receive less legal support for her matter than if she were conveniently located in the city.[16]

In addition to cost, issues of distance, confidentiality and choice arose as challenges to the effective access of women in RRR areas to legal services. The experience of women having to leave their communities (and thus incur even greater cost) to get legal services because their partner is already a client (through business or farm matters) of the only law firm in town, or has deliberately gone for advice to each law firm in town so that none can assist her due to conflict of interest was not considered to be uncommon. Other issues included the infrequency of court visits to RRR areas, resulting in long delays in resolving matters, and the greater likelihood of matters for country family law clients to involve proceedings in both the Family Court and Magistrates’ Court.[17]

What needs to happen now

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s legal issues

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were recognised by the conference to be the most legally disadvantaged group in Australia, and action to improve their legal situation was accorded the highest priority by the conference.

One example given to the conference of the legal disadvantage suffered by Indigenous women is the massive rise in imprisonment rates for Indigenous women in the Northern Territory since the introduction of mandatory sentencing in that jurisdiction. In the first year of the mandatory sentencing regime, Indigenous women experienced an increase of 232% in their incarceration rates. This rise in imprisonment rates for indigenous women is much greater than even the 67% increase in imprisonment rates for Indigenous men following the introduction of mandatory sentencing. There has also been a rise in the proportion of the NT female prison population that is indigenous women, from 85% in 1994/95, prior to the introduction of mandatory sentencing, to an estimated 91% in 1998/99, the second year of mandatory sentencing.[18] These figures suggest that the new laws are discriminatory on the grounds of both race and sex and in contravention of Australia’s obligations under the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Lack of access to legal services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women was identified as a problem in the Equality Before the Law report, which found their access to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services (ATSILS) and legal aid commissions was inequitable and insufficient for their needs. This is in a context where Aboriginal women are subject to high levels of family and community violence, such that they comprise 16% of all female homicide victims while comprising only 1.5% of the population.[19]

ATSIC information provided by Coates indicates that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women receive 25% of the legal assistance provided by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services, which provide 90% of all legal services provided to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This can be partly explained by the focus of these services on providing assistance to criminal defendants, most of whom are male. Where the offence is an assault, the victim — a witness in the proceedings — is not legally represented. This historically resulted in some ATSILS refusing assistance to women needing legal help arising from abuse by an Indigenous family or community member, as usually her assailant had already become a client in criminal proceedings and thus there was a conflict of interest. Current guidelines seek to reduce this problem by briefing out to the private profession where there is a legal conflict between two indigenous parties, but this change has not been fully effective in redressing the gender inequities.

The establishment of the Indigenous Women’s Programs within the community legal services sector is a specific measure aimed at improving access to legal services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, but they receive very limited funding for what is a major gap in services.

The conference endorsed recommendations to improve legal equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in the following ways.

• A national conference to focus specifically on the legal needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in RRR areas, to be convened with adequate resources by the National Network of Indigenous Women’s Legal Services.

• Provision of resources by ATSIC, federal, state and territory governments to the NNIWLS to facilitate information sharing, service quality improvement and coordination between all the organisations that provide legal services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

• Improvement of coordination between the government bodies that fund legal services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

• Increased resources to legal services specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

• Improved support and opportunities for legal and para-legal training for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to enable them to work in legal services.

• A review and revision of strategies to encourage and support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to participate in legal and related careers. Current strategies are very limited and not very successful. HECS fees to be waived for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders undertaking tertiary legal studies.

• ATSIC, the Commonwealth government and legal service providers to work more closely to find alternatives to the conflict of interest practices which discriminate against women needing legal services where the other party is a client of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal service.

• A greater effort by State and Territory governments to establish and provide adequate resources for alternatives to imprisonment, such as rehabilitative and diversionary programs which recognise the life circumstances of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

• The provision of properly trained female interpreters for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who come into contact with the legal system.

• Where there are high levels of contact between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and the police, that there be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women community liaison officers attached to police stations.

• Government at all levels, service provider groups and non-government organisations must consult with peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander bodies to develop more effective partnerships to address the extreme legal disadvantage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

The conference also supported a demand for accountability from federal, State and Territory governments as to their failure to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.


While there are examples of new legal services in RRR areas of most States and Territories, the networks between these services, between communities, between service provider sectors and between representative organisations are still being formed. The capability of these services to share information and ideas on needs and service delivery strategies is imperative for the effective use of available resources and for coordinated input into policy development and service planning at all levels of government. Thus far, most of these networks have been struggling to achieve these ends without funding or within existing operational resources.

Specific funding to support the development and operation of the networks is required, along with in-kind support and cooperation from all levels of government and from other organisations with an interest in justice. This should include establishment of ongoing processes to monitor and advise government on legal issues for women in RRR areas.


The need for research into legal needs and access to legal services for women was highlighted by speakers and workshop participants in a whole range of areas, from access to legal aid through to the appropriateness of sentencing options for women offenders in RRR areas. Examples of specific relevant research already undertaken include How do I prove I saw His Shadow? — Responses to Breaches of AVOs by Hayley Katzen,[20] Domestic Violence in Regional Australia — a Literature Review prepared by the Women’s Services Network,[21] and Taken In — When Women with Dependent Children are Taken into Custody: Implications for Justice and Welfare by Women’s Legal Service (SA) Inc.

However, there was also a concern that what research has been undertaken addresses only parts of the picture, without the framework of overarching research in this area. Comprehensive research is required looking specifically at legal needs and access to legal services for women in RRR Australia. Such research should be undertaken prior to the development of major new legal initiatives for RRR areas with a view to informing the development of effective policy and programs in these areas. As a matter of urgency this should include more consistent data collection and analysis by legal aid providers.

Needs of specific groups

A number of workshops considered the needs of women who experience particular barriers to legal equity based on intolerance or lack of understanding of needs related to their age (both older and younger women), disability, detention, sexuality, or cultural or linguistic background. A common theme developed by these workshops was the under- recognition by service providers and policy makers of the legal needs and barriers faced by these women. The conference determined in each instance that the experience of women in RRR areas with specific needs requires greater consideration and recognition by policy makers and program planners.

National Women’s Justice Program

The conference expressed concern that since the Equality Before the Law reports were released in 1994 there had been no review of progress against the issues identified and recommendations, and called for the establishment of such a review and the formation of a National Women’s Justice Program to focus and coordinate legal policy and services for women.

What we are already doing

National Network of Indigenous Women’s Legal Services project

Arising from the conference discussions, the National Network of Indigenous Women’s Legal Services (NNIWLS) applied for and won grant funds totalling $50,000 to assist their network development and operation. Comprised of two grants, one of $35,000 from the Stegley Foundation (including $5000 from a private donor) and one of $14,000 from the Lance Reichstein Foundation, the project will run for 12 months from the commencement of the grant funding.

The key objectives of the project are:

• to facilitate and support the work of the NNIWLS to clarify the structure and membership of the Network, boost levels of communication and participation;

• to achieve ongoing operational funding for the NNIWLS from government or other sources; and

• to facilitate and support the work of the NNIWLS to undertake the initial planning (including lodging funding applications) to deliver a national conference on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women and the Law.

Auspiced for the Network by the National Women’s Justice Coalition Inc and Albury Wodonga Community Legal Service, the project will be managed by a steering group comprised of representatives of the NNIWLS.

Through Our Eyes follow on project

The National Women’s Justice Coalition and the Albury Wodonga Community Legal Service have again joined forces to manage the Through Our Eyes Follow On Project. With a grant of $25,000 from the Commonwealth Office of the Status of Women,[22] the project aims to facilitate ongoing discussion of the legal needs of women in RRR Australia. This project is funded until 31 October 2001 and involves a number of activities:

• the production and distribution of a free fortnightly e-mail bulletin containing news, information and ideas sharing between people with an interest in legal issues for women in RRR Australia;

• a web site at <> which includes resources and pointers to important networks and information sources;

• a web-based public discussion board where individuals can post notices and discuss legal and related issues for women in RRR regions; and

• a separate e-mail discussion list called ‘Inland-see’.

There is also a new discussion list on videoconferencing for legal service delivery. It has been established by the National Women’s Justice Coalition in partnership with the NSW Legal Aid Commission and strongly promoted by the NSW Law and Justice Foundation. The list has participants from community legal services, legal aid commissions, courts, government and businesses providing different kinds of videoconferencing facilities. The list welcomes people who have knowledge of or a strong interest in evaluating the use of videoconferencing as part of a legal service delivery strategy.

Closing thoughts

While some initiatives arising from the conference are already under way, they represent only a small component of the work that needs to be done in learning more about the legal needs of women in RRR Australia and designing policy and services to meet those needs adequately and with equality. The needs and the possible effective responses are very diverse, leaving simple solutions a fantasy or, if adopted, a waste of precious resources. More money is needed for legal services, but that is not all. RRR communities, governments, those involved in making decisions about services, delivering or needing services, all need to know more in order to make informed decisions tailored to the needs of each community. This knowledge is not easily gained, and a multifaceted approach involving extensive research and consultation is required. Communities need the resources to share their ideas and information with each other and with policy makers, and the power to determine and manage their own services.

* Editors’ note: The conference Kaz Eaton discusses did not have a working definition of ‘regional, rural and remote’ communities. As noted in our Opinion, one of the difficulties for research and the development of policy on RRR issues is the lack of a common understanding of which communities are covered by the term ‘RRR’.


[*] Kaz Eaton is Project Officer for the Through Our Eyes Project.© 2001 Kaz Eaton (text)© 2001 Jane Cafarella (cartoon)

[1] Australian Law Reform Commission, Equality Before the Law: Justice for Women Part I, and Equality Before the Law: Women’s Equality Part II, Report No 69, AGPS, 1994.

[2] More information about NWJC and the AVCWL can be found at their website <> .

[3] ALRC, Part II, above, ref 1, Ch 11.

[4] See the article by Margot Rawsthorne, ‘Law by Telecommunications — The Magic Solution for Rural Australians’ elsewhere in this issue.

[5] Alston, Margaret, ‘Rural Women’s Access to Legal Services’, Through Our Eyes Conference Paper, Albury, June 2000.

[6] Scoping Study — The Scope for Delivery of legal Services to Regional, Rural and Remote Australia via Telecommunications Channels, Attorney-General’s Department, July 1999, p.28, in Coates, R., ‘Current Legal Aid Service Provision in Rural Australia’, Through Our Eyes Conference Paper, Albury, June 2000.

[7] Alston, above, ref 5.

[8] Alston, above, ref 5.

[9] Coates, above, ref 6, p.12 citing Equality Before the Law: Women’s Access to the Legal System, p.36; Australian Law Reform Commission, Managing Justice; A Review of the Federal Civil Justice System Report No 89, AGPS, 2000, p.330; and Rush Social Research Agency & John Walker Consulting Services, Legal Assistance Needs Project: Phase 2, Summary Report, Commonwealth Attorney- General’s Department, May 1999, pp.30, 33 & 34.

[10] The Australian Legal Assistance Forum (ALAF) was formed in 1998 and is a coalition of the major organisations providing legal aid services in Australia. These organisations are National Legal Aid, the Law Council of Australia, representatives of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services Secretariat; and the National Association of Community Legal Centres.

[11] Coates, above, ref 6, p.13.

[12] The agencies included in Coates’ research were Legal Aid Commissions, legal aid funded private practitioners, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and community legal centres.

[13] Katzen, Hayley, ‘Domestic Violence and Police’, Through Our Eyes Conference Paper, Albury, June 2000.

[14] Alston above, ref 5, p.4.

[15] This is explained in the article by Giddings, Hook and Nielsen, elsewhere in this issue.

[16] Coates, above, ref 6, p.14.

[17] Legal Services in Family Law, Justice Research Centre, May 2000 p.120, as cited in Coates, above, ref 6, p.14.

[18] Hardy, Jenny, ‘Mandatory Sentencing — impact on imprisonment rates of women in the NT’, Through Our Eyes Conference Paper, Albury, June 2000.

[19] ALRC, Part I, p 56, cited by Coates, above, ref 6.

[20] Katzen, above, ref 13.

[21] Domestic Violence in Regional Australia — a Literature Review, A report for the Commonwealth Department of Transport and Regional Services prepared by the Women’s Services Network Commonwealth of Australia, June 2000.

[22] National Women’s Non-Government Organisations Funding Programme, the Office of the Status of Women, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

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