Much has been said in the media about the importance of safety and the need for New Zealand to reduce the amount of domestic violence. We have campaigns such as “Its okay to ask for help”, “White Ribbon” and “Womens Refuge” all seeking to have a reduction in domestic violence.
One thing that has not received sufficient media attention is the cost of protection. Yes, there have been studies as to costs to society of domestic violence but I am talking about the cost of applying for a protection order.
There is a myth within society that if one needs a protection order that one simply applies. There are assumptions that because of legal aid that women do not have to pay for a lawyer to apply for a protection order. This myth is, of course, false.
Protection orders, like other forms of civil legal aid, involve the applicant needing to fill out an 11-page application setting out their income with proof of that income and setting out their assets including what equity they have in the family home.
In order to receive legal aid one’s income must be below the threshold. For a single applicant without any children the individual needs to earn below $27,540 before tax. For an applicant with two children they need to earn below $43,416 before tax.
In addition the amount of equity in the family home is taken into account. If a person meets the income threshold they may still not be eligible for legal aid due to having equity in their home of more than $80,000. As we all know with property prices increasing it is not hard to have equity in one’s home of more than $80,000.
Does equity in your home mean that you are able to pay lawyer’s fees to apply for a protection order? No. The idea that a woman who has escaped an abusive relationship with the mechanisms of power and control will have access to thousands of dollars is ludicrous.
In order to be able to borrow against a family home in effect the woman would need the written permission of their abuser. This is not to mention that any loan taken would need to be repaid and so, therefore, their income would need to be sufficient to cover not only the cost of re-housing under urgent circumstances but also for repaying that loan.
There is provision for people who not eligible for legal aid to apply for special consideration. This involves a discretion from legal aid to consider whether under the circumstances a particular person should be entitled to legal aid. We are often told that the response to these will be prompt, however in my own personal experience it takes two weeks for a result.
When a person sees their lawyer in need of an urgent protection order, they need protection that day. It is not possible for them to wait for two weeks for legal aid to decide whether or not they will fund the application before filing documents into court.
The question then becomes whether the family lawyer decides to file the documents into court essentially placing themselves on the record and being obliged to appear in court until they are given permission or leave to withdraw.
The victim would need to find a lawyer who will take the risk of not only working for free if legal aid is declined but also of having to pay a process server to serve any application for leave to withdraw and to appear in or future court appearances until that leave is granted.
The question I have is why there is a need for an 11-page application, and assessment of income with the victim having to contact their employer for payslips, risking any current employment.
Why is there a need for the person’s income to be relevant at all. We are not living in a third world, surely we live in a country that will fund our most vulnerable to be able to make themselves and their children safe.
We need to stop doing lip service to domestic violence and start with the basics which, unfortunately, are sorely lacking.
I have set up a twitter account @thecostofsafety to raise awareness of the cost of safety. Please show your support by following the page, retweeting comments or contacting your MP to show that you want to see a change.
Rebecca Holm is a family law barrister at North Shore Legal Chambers. Rebecca has a Masters degree (which focuses on justice and reconciliation). She started practice in 1998, and is approved by the Ministry of Justice as a lawyer for children and works in all areas of family law. Rebecca takes on legal aid work to assist those seeking protection orders and reduces her fee for private clients who are need protection. Her chambers website is www.nslc.co.nz.