We have seen better financial outcomes for family violence victim survivors over the past three years, due to the work of government, regulators and business. A new report by Carolyn Bond and Dr. Madeleine Ulbrick examines what has been achieved, and what remains to be done.
In 2016, the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence (RCFV) recommended action by government, regulators and business to address economic abuse. The Chair of the Victorian Essential Services Commission reflected on what many regulators and businesses were likely to had thought at that time “We’re economists. What do you want me to do about an issue as pervasive and complicated as family violence?” However, the RCFV led to major changes in thinking and in practice.
The “Responding to Financial Abuse – Full Report 2019” (Report) is written on behalf of the Economic Abuse Reference Group (EARG). The EARG is made up of 20 community organisations who work collectively to influence industry and government responses to reduce the financial impact of family violence.
Family violence victim survivors suffer financially from the impact of physical violence and economic abuse. Physical violence can lead to additional health costs, being unable to work, destruction of property, or costs to escape and become re-established. Economic abuse, which is a form of family violence, includes coercion to sign for debts, denying access to household funds and refusing to pay for household bills. Physical and economic abuse are closely linked, as “denial of material security [corresponds] with denial of physical security”.
The Report focusses on the response by industry and government to the 15 RCFV recommendations that address financial security and economic abuse aimed at:
- Enhancing the ability of community organisations to prevent and respond to financial stress;
- Changing business processes to reduce the financial impact of family violence on customers; and
- Changing infringement and tenancy laws.
In response to these recommendations, the Victorian Government funded family violence training for all financial counsellors, appointed 21 specialist family violence financial counsellor positions, and funded the Economic Abuse Reference Group to co-ordinate community input to government and business reforms.
Financial counsellors have extensive knowledge of a range of areas of law and policy, including consumer credit law, debt enforcement practices, the bankruptcy regime, industry hardship policies and government concession frameworks. The family violence financial counsellors have close links to family violence services and can support clients to take advantage of the relevant laws and business processes. They also influence laws and policies through broader system advocacy informed by their casework.
Since 2017, financial counsellors have reported better responses from financial institutions, increased understanding of family violence by businesses, release from payment of some fines and debts and, in some cases, tailored responses to complex situations experienced by their clients. For many clients, these responses have improved their personal safety and allowed them to re-establish their lives.
The Report describes how many larger industry organisations across banking, insurance, utilities and telecommunications, have demonstrated leadership with commitment to dedicated policies and often dedicated staff.
Reforms include family violence guidance published by the Australian Bankers Association and the Insurance Council of Australia, obligations for Victorian energy and water businesses to have effective family violence processes for customers, and a process for seeking release from fines that are incurred as a result of family violence.
More remains to be done, however. While many large businesses have established effective teams to respond to these customers, there is a need for broader staff awareness to ensure that customers who don’t have an advocate receive a similar response to those who do. For example, some large debt collection firms have someone who can resolve cases when contacted by an advocate such as a financial counsellor, but when an unrepresented person contacts the call centre, the response does not result in a resolution.
The Report outlines issues requiring further attention including local government’s response to rates, car registration transfer, and credit reporting. There is also a need for other states to catch up with Victoria by resourcing specialist family violence financial counsellors, and reforming tenancy, fines, energy and water laws.
Circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to lead to an increase in family violence and increase the risks of economic abuse, as well as problems in accessing assistance services.
Community services will play a vital role in identifying, and responding to, new economic abuse risks. At the same time, the community sector and industry must ensure we don’t ‘drop the ball’ on our ongoing work to reduce the financial harm experienced by family violence victim survivors.
Carolyn Bond is project manager of the Economic Abuse Reference Group
Dr. Madeleine Ulbrick recently completed a PhD thesis ‘A Man’s Home is His Castle. And Mine is a Cage’: A Feminist Political Economy Analysis of Economic Abuse in Victoria.
 Victoria, Royal Commission into Family Violence, Summary and Recommendations (2016), p1.
 Dr Ron Ben-David: What can an economic regulator do about family violence? , Speech delivered at family violence resources review forum, Melbourne, 30 August 2018 (Essential Services Commission, 2018).
 Dr Madeleine Ulbrick, ‘A Man’s Home is His Castle. And Mine is a Cage’: A Feminist Political Economy Analysis of Economic Abuse in Victoria, Doctoral Thesis (Monash University 2019).