Indigenous Law Bulletin
by Claire Minsun Song
The Family Law Affidavit Pilot Project aims to provide legal assistance to Aboriginal women in rural and remote areas of New South Wales (‘NSW’) who have family law cases involving children. Family law is a high demand area of law in regional NSW, yet geographical isolation makes the provision of legal services a greater challenge. For example, local lawyers in small communities can easily find themselves with a potential conflict of interest because they know the other party. Aboriginal women in these remote areas often have limited access to legal assistance, putting them at a disadvantage.
The experience of community legal centres is that most family law matters do not proceed beyond the interim stage and therefore, the preparation of an affidavit which supports the orders sought in admissible and relevant form will assist to achieve a fair outcome. The Family Law Affidavit Pilot Project (‘the Pilot Project’) seeks to remedy the disadvantage faced by Aboriginal women in regional NSW by providing pro bono legal assistance in the drafting of family law affidavits.
Through the Pilot Project, Aboriginal women in the bush will be connected with Sydney-based solicitors, who, in a pro bono capacity, will draft affidavits for their family law matters.
The Pilot Project is a joint initiative of the Law Society of NSW Pro Bono Scheme and Women’s Legal Services NSW, and is funded by the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW.
The Pilot Project arose from a need identified in the Walgett area of western NSW and developed following a meeting between community legal centres and pro bono coordinators from large commercial firms in Sydney. The Pilot Project has expanded to accept referrals from other areas of the State.
Statistics show that family law issues are a common problem for many women living in remote areas of NSW. More than half of Legal Aid Commission (Family Law Division) clients come from rural and regional areas of NSW. Further, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population forms a significant proportion (7.3 per cent) of this group of clients. Despite the expansion of Legal Aid Commission regional offices and outreach programs, there are still areas which remain relatively isolated from legal assistance.
The Family Law Affidavit Pilot Project aims to:
|•||Improve and facilitate access to justice for Aboriginal women in their family law matters;|
|•||Provide affidavits in family law matters concerning contact and residence with children for Aboriginal women in remote and rural areas;|
|•||Provide a network for organisations and services for the primary purpose of providing legal assistance in family law matters in the form of affidavit preparation;|
|•||Liaise with firms and individual volunteer solicitors;|
|•||Encourage legal practitioners in large commercial firms in Sydney to provide legal assistance in family law on a pro bono basis;|
|•||Build partnerships and social coalitions to address the legal disadvantage of Indigenous women;|
|•||Evaluate and report on the progress of the Pilot Project;|
|•||Evaluate the effectiveness of the Pilot Project; and|
|•||Make recommendations for the future direction of the Pilot Project.|
The Pilot was launched in February 2005 when over 75 Sydney solicitors attended a training session on ‘Affidavits in Family Law’ by Justice Gary Watts and ‘Issues in Cultural Awareness’ by Rene Adams from Women’s Legal Services NSW. Although the solicitors who attended the training session came from diverse legal backgrounds, they all expressed a genuine desire to assist legally disadvantaged Aboriginal women.
The Law and Justice Foundation of NSW approved funding for the appointment of a Pilot Project Coordinator, who commenced in December 2005. Applications have already been received from Indigenous women in need of legal assistance and referrals made to the volunteer solicitors.
Criteria for legal assistance under the Family Law Affidavit Pilot Project are;
|•||Aboriginal women; with a|
|•||Family law matter involving residence and contact with the children; and|
|•||In a circumstance where the Pilot Project is the best legal option available.|
The Family Law Affidavit Pilot Project seeks to promote its service through organisations which already enjoy an established relationship with Indigenous communities across NSW. Once an agency refers a matter to the Coordinator, she will connect the client with a solicitor who will prepare the affidavit. Individual enquiries from clients should be directed to the Indigenous Women’s Legal Contact Line (a service provided by Women’s Legal Services NSW).
Future evaluations will judge whether the Family Law Affidavit Pilot Project succeeds in improving access to justice for Aboriginal women in NSW. Hopefully, the success of the Pilot Project will present a good national model for other states and territories in Australia.
The Indigenous Women’s Legal Contact Line is 1800 639 784.
Claire Minsung Song BA LLB is the Coordinator of the Family Law Affidavit Pilot Project. She is based at the Law Society of NSW and can be reached on 02 9926 0397.
 Legal Aid Commission of NSW, Annual Report 2004 – 2005, (2005) 12.