The family court system is costly for victim-survivors. Here's the legal services offering financial help.

The cost of leaving a violent partner is astronomical. It's even more financially taxing when children are involved, and the matter goes to family court.

As one victim-survivor and mum of two girls recently told Mamamia: "I have spent $300,000 in legal costs. I am exhausted. There needs to be a drastic change in how we deal with domestic violence which doesn't retraumatise the victim, especially in the courts."

Some in the industry say many community legal centres and some family law firms are rethinking their service models to align with what ordinary people can afford. It's undoubtedly a step in the right direction. 

We spoke to two experts in the field, specifically when it comes to victim-survivors and the legal services offering free and affordable help.

Free case evaluations.

There are some law firms, though they are few in numbers, that offer free case evaluations and free upfront consultations. With a bit of research and digging, you might find one suited to you. 

Senior family law professional Dr Maree Livermore is the Founder and CEO of Tribe Family Lawyers, as well as the author of the plain-English Family Law Handbook. She tells Mamamia that 70 per cent of her clients are women, many of whom have coercive control and domestic violence in their profile.

"I'm very happy to talk to people in our free case evaluation service. I can talk women through their next steps in the separation and family law process. The fundamental elements include legal and practical steps to protect themselves, their children and their financial interests but they also include psychological support," notes Dr Livermore.


If domestic violence is at the centre of your case, Dr Livermore recommends starting by getting in touch with domestic violence services — like 1800RESPECT. Resources like these are great as they can refer people to appropriate services in their given area.

Watch: women and violence, the hidden numbers. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia. 

"It's important at this early stage of the process for survivors to seek psychological support from a therapist, psychologist or counsellor. It's very hard to do family law as a trauma affected person, so having that expert support guiding you throughout the process is key."

Legal aid and 

New data from Legal Aid NSW's Domestic Violence Unit (DVU) shows calls to its hotline grew 36 per cent over two years.

Women experiencing domestic violence across Australia can access free legal help with their family law matter through the Family Advocacy and Support Services (FASS), Domestic Violence Unit (DVU) and Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service (WDVCAS).

"In NSW, Legal Aid NSW's Domestic Violence Unit provides free initial advice without a means or merit test. A means and merit test is only applied to ongoing services, such as ongoing legal representation," a Legal Aid NSW spokesperson told Mamamia


"Our DVU is a specialist team of lawyers, domestic violence case workers, mental health workers and financial counsellors that operates across NSW. Women impacted by domestic violence who have a family law problem can also access free non-legal support through the dedicated FASS social support service for women. This is a free service, with no means or merit test."

For more information on legal aid you can visit your specific state or territory's website. Legal Aid NSW can be seen here, and FASS social support workers can be found on the Family Violence Law Help website

Community legal centres.

Additionally, community legal centres offer free advice and unbundled services to empower self-advocacy while still providing professional guidance. Marrickville Legal Centre (MLC) is one example, a not-for-profit community legal centre based in Sydney. They provide legal support to people experiencing disadvantage in our legal system through free and affordable legal services.

Vasili Maroulis is the CEO of MLC. Speaking with Mamamia, he says domestic violence is something they see often among their clients, though the centre doesn't have the sufficient funding they would like to provide the level of assistance their community needs. 

"Our domestic violence support lawyer deals with a lot of the day to day work. We're just not resourced to attend to everybody and extend to them the level of assistance they need. The system doesn't work, it never has and the justice gap keeps getting wider. So it's up to us to get more creative in how we approach access to justice," he explains. 


"14 per cent of Australians live below the Henderson poverty line, but only eight per cent are eligible for a free service through legal aid."

Regardless, Maroulis recommends that victim-survivors who require assistance applying for legal aid or are ineligible for legal aid should contact their local community legal centre for assistance. Trying to get a free service is well worth the effort. 

Unbundled legal services.

Some family law firms are starting to offer fixed-fee options for specific services, making legal help more accessible. This includes initial consultations, negotiating agreements, or representation for a single court date. 

Although an exact cost estimate is unrealistic, Dr Livermore says that typically going down the cheaper unbundled legal services route can be 20 per cent of the standard usual cost.

This is a great option for those who are not eligible for legal aid but also can't afford to pay enormous legal bills. 

"Tribe's unbundled legal services system is a comprehensive suite of fixed-fee service packages for self-represented people that provides affordable legal service at strategically important parts of the family law pathway," explains Dr Livermore.

"Doing the simpler legal tasks yourself and then having the unbundled lawyer to do tasks where professional experience really makes difference to your outcomes. It just makes legal help so much more affordable. 

"You can control exactly what you spend. You don't have a lawyer working away on your matter, racking up hourly rate fees that you have no idea about, and then you get a big shock when you see your invoice at the end of the month."


Dr Livermore notes that it can be really hard to be self-represented. 

It's not a suitable option for many women and you may not do as well as you would with a lawyer representing you. But if you aren't wealthy nor have a lot of savings, this new way of working alongside a lawyer on your matter might be much more aligned with your resources.

Low bono services.

You may have heard of 'pro bono' but have you ever heard of 'low bono'?

Pro bono in the legal context means the provision of legal services on a fee free basis, with no expectation of a commercial return.

In contrast, low bono is an innovative service providing legal assistance to people who find themselves caught in between not being able to afford private representation but who also cannot qualify for public assistance, such as through legal aid. For example, MLC's low bono legal service was established to provide legal representation to low or middle-income earners (otherwise known as the 'missing middle') without sending them into financial hardship.

Similar to the premise with unbundled legal services, low bono provides assistance for those who can contribute some funds. 

MLC's low bono service currently covers unfair employment dismissals, discrimination, sexual harassment matters, and contract disputes. MLC is one of the main community legal centres offering this scheme, and Maroulis says whatever funds the client pays then goes back into the community, as they're a not-for-profit. MLC is hoping to expand its low bono services to clients in the family court arena in the near future.


In the meantime, Maroulis recommends people look at options like Wallumatta Legal, which is a low fee, not-for-profit, family law firm.

Speak with fellow victim-survivors who have been through the court system.

Stories from women who have endured the court system that can be powerful.

Whether it's reading first-hand accounts, reaching out to advocacy networks or joining support Facebook groups, there are plenty of ways to connect with the experiences of other victim-survivors. Tribe Family Lawyers has started up a private Facebook group called 'Family Law Help for Women Australia', if you wish to look into it.

Why legal representation is so important.

"Self-represented victim-survivors are particularly vulnerable once a case goes to court. The other side can use this to their advantage, and it is very frequently the case that a victim ends up agreeing to very poor financial or parenting arrangements just to get out of the litigation," says Dr Livermore.

"With legal support, they are able to put their best legal foot forward and avoid being steamrolled by the other side."

But Dr Livermore wants women to know this — don't give up. 

"You can do it, it's hard but there's support out there. For the sake of your future and your kids' future, it's worth sticking it out and being steadfast."

Ultimately, there's a significant amount that the government ought to do in this space — both in funding for legal aid generally, but also helping victim-survivors in the family law system.


The government is currently considering amendments to the Family Law Act. We've also seen the Independent Review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership, which aims to fund vital legal assistance services for the most vulnerable people in Australia. 

There's been many smart proposals made in the Australian Law Reform Commission's report, and these have been supported by the Law Council of Australia too. This ranges from addressing family violence within property settlements, an amended victims compensation scheme, better family law funding and better legal aid.

As Maroulis notes: "Policy and structural change is needed in this space."

In the meantime, it's victim-survivors who carry the heaviest mental load. Not perpetrators. And that needs to change.

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.

Mamamia is a charity partner of RizeUp Australia, a national organisation that helps women, children and families move on after the devastation of domestic and family violence. Their mission is to deliver life-changing and practical support to these families when they need it most. If you would like to support their mission you can donate here

Feature Image: Canva.