A number of EARG organisations provided their valuable expertise and insights into this new report: Addressing financial abuse: a collaborative service model for legal and non-legal support, supported by Commonwealth Bank, in partnership with Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) and the Consulting & Implementation Services. The report outlines a best practice service model for organisations who work with victim-survivors of domestic violence and financial abuse. It explains how community organisations can provide a more holistic service for clients who are impacted by domestic violence and financial abuse, enabling them to gain better access to legal and social service supports without the need to individually source these broader services. Key recommendations include the need for both legal and non-legal trauma informed and culturally appropriate support, the importance of collaboration between legal and socio-legal support services, the value of human resources and the need for capacity building and reforms.Best
Since the Victorian Royal Commission into Family violence handed down its recommendations in 2016, there have been significant changes in the way that many businesses, and some sections of government, tailor their services to better respond to customers experiencing family violence.
EARG has had input to most of these reforms, with a focus on financial outcomes for victim survivors and how economic abuse issues are handled by business.
There is still work to do to ensure that these approaches are embedded within businesses, and that there is ongoing training of staff and reviewing of processes to ensure customers benefit.
Banks – The Australian Banking Association has produced, and updated, an industry guideline on responding to domestic and family violence and made reference to DFV in the Banking Code of Practice. The ABA examined some issues arising with joint accounts and DFV, and were successful in having legislation changed, which confirmed that banks could open an account without the required 100 points, where the customer lacked access to that information due to DFV. Individual banks have developed some effective processes and programs to respond to these issues.
Insurance – The Insurance Council of Australia developed a guide to helping affected customers and referred to DFV in the Insurance Code of Practice. Insurers continue to consider how to respond to more complex issues (for example some insurers have recently amended their policies to take into consideration compensating for damage caused by a co-insured in family violence circumstances)
Transurban (which has roads in Eastern States) has introduced a number of measures to respond to customers experiencing DFV including abuse by incurring charges and locking online accounts.
Industry guidance produced and various responses developed by some businesses including transferring accounts in DFV circumstances (where this would not usually be possible because the account is in another person’s name).
Individual businesses – While we tend to focus across industries, we have raised issues with some individual financial services (eg credit providers, debt collectors) which has resulted in improvements in their response to DFV issues.
Energy and Water (Victoria) – The Essential Services Commission (Vic) amended the Energy Code to include obligations on energy retailers to have family violence policies and to meet minimum standards of conduct, including staff training, debt management practices and improved account security. These provisions are enforceable by the regulator, which provided workshops for the businesses and published detailed guidance. The regulator also amended the Water Code to place an obligation on water businesses to develop robust family violence policies.
Energy (National) – The national energy regulator is currently considering introducing rules regarding responding to customers experiencing family violence.
Debt Collection Guidelines – Changes were made to the ASIC/ACCC Debt Collection to take into account some DFV issues. (Dec 2020).
Superannuation – the Commonwealth Government has recently introduced a Bill which would make it easier for parties in Family Law proceedings to obtain information about the other party’s superannuation funds (thereby preventing one avenue of financial abuse).
Fines Victoria – The Victorian Government introduced through legislation a Family Violence Scheme. Victim survivors can apply to Fines Victoria to have fines withdrawn if family violence substantially contributed to the offence and won’t be required to name the person responsible for the offence if it’s not safe to do so.
Tenancy laws – Victoria – The Victorian Government amended residential tenancies laws to enhance protections for tenants experiencing family violence. This included allowing the tribunal to change tenancy agreements excluding the perpetrator, allowing a victim survivor to make reasonable security modifications and preventing negative listings on a tenancy data base against a victim survivor.
VicRoads (Vehicle registration, licensing etc) – have introduced special contact point and processes (including training of staff) to respond to customers experiencing DFV and requiring assistance from VicRoads
Some businesses are providing sophisticated responses to customers experiencing domestic and family violence (DFV), but some are too quick to focus solely on financial circumstances rather than the impact of abuse.
A range of reforms over the past 4 years (by businesses, Government, and regulators) have led to better financial outcomes for some victim survivors who are better able to re-establish their lives as a result.
The link between business processes and DFV is better understood, including the misuse of online services for abuse, access to online accounts, and use of customer data by perpetrators to locate or abuse a victim survivor. However, financial counsellors and community lawyers say that when it comes to debt issues, some businesses are too quick to apply their processes for financial hardship, without considering the impact of DFV.
Specialist family violence financial counsellor, Linda Wright, says “Debt is a key weapon for abusers, and often the main barrier to a victim survivor’s recovery.” The more responsive businesses consider the impact of the abuse on how the debt was incurred, or not paid, as well as any financial hardship – but being in financial hardship shouldn’t be a pre-requisite for the business to respond.
Linda says that her clients have good experiences with businesses. “For example, one bank cancelled a credit card debt once they understood there was coercion by the perpetrator to apply for the card, and it hadn’t been used for the benefit of my client. An energy business also cancelled a debt which was in my client’s name but was incurred after she fled the violent relationship. In these cases, my clients’ financial circumstances weren’t relevant to the DFV situation, and the businesses understood that.”
Dacia Abela, economic abuse lawyer at WEstjustice, says where a person has experienced DFV (which usually includes economic abuse) businesses shouldn’t insist on financial statements, but should consider a number of factors in determining an appropriate response including:
- Was the liability incurred as a result of DFV? For example, was their coercion, or was the victim survivor unaware payments were not being made?
- Did the creditor’s conduct or processes contribute in any way? (regardless of whether the creditor was in strict compliance with the law)
- Are there compassionate grounds for restoring the victim-survivor to the position they would have been in without the abusive behaviour, even if the customer isn’t experiencing severe financial hardship?