Protecting lives and changing behaviours – a day in the life of a family violence lawyer

Protecting lives and changing behaviours – a day in the life of a family violence lawyer

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Passionate about law reform, legal education and case work, Geelong lawyer, Brittany Myers is one of our many lawyers working on the front line of family violence.

‘Having worked in a variety of roles and locations, including the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency in Alice Springs and the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office, I’ve seen how the justice system isn’t working for those people most likely to encounter it.

‘This is particularly true for the criminal justice system, and in the family violence space, and I’m keen to make a difference,’ said Brittany.

An insight into the role

Sadly, family violence work is an ever expanding area of Brittany’s work and keeps her consistently busy.

Brittany provides legal help to people involved in both applications for family violence intervention orders and in criminal cases where someone has been charged for breach of a previously-made intervention order.

‘A day in the life of a family violence lawyer is generally very demanding, and emotionally charged, and after taking a quick look at the paperwork, I’ll take the first person in for a chat.

‘People are often distressed about having to come to court, as for many, it is their first exposure to the court system.

‘I’ll guide them through the paperwork, explain any charges and discuss what they would like to do and how I can help.’

The hectic nature of the day means that by the time Brittany finishes with one person, there will inevitably be two or more files waiting in her in tray.

‘Between speaking to clients, I’ll also be case conferencing matters, which involves discussing the case with police prosecutors, or negotiating with other lawyers.’

If the role sounds hectic, that’s because it is.

‘Working as a family violence duty lawyer is a constant balancing act all day, and is similar to spinning plates on sticks and ensuring that none of them fall.

‘It’s certainly an accurate analogy given all the running I do between clients, other lawyers, from court to court, and to the police prosecutions office each day,’ she said.

Image of Brittany Myers
Lawyer Brittany Myers

The challenge of intervention orders

A constantly challenging aspect of duty lawyering is intervention orders which often involve considerable back and forth between the client and the other party as they seek to negotiate suitable conditions.

This is particularly difficult as lawyers are frequently working under significant time pressure, yet it’s important to take the time to explain what the intervention order conditions mean, and to think through the practical implications of conditions for people.

‘Intervention orders can be made quickly, and many people are keen to consent to them in order to get the hearing over and done with, but they don’t necessarily think through how the order will actually affect their lives.

‘It’s also important for all parties that orders are protective, but also workable, and take account of their specific situation and needs.

‘The more practical an order is, the more likely it will be followed, which means it will serve its protective purpose.’

Brittany also sees a lot of people that are ‘quite emotional, and understandably so when we’re talking about their families and living arrangements.’

‘As a result of family violence, people’s lives can be changed, with some people facing homelessness and separation from their children.’

The role can also be emotionally taxing as some people have entrenched views about their behaviour and are unwilling to see how their conduct could be considered family violence.

‘It is especially confronting to hear justifications for family violence and this is compounded when people don’t accept that their behaviour needs to change, and are resistant to participating in behavioural change programs,’ said Brittany.

Influencing behavioural change

While the work is emotionally draining, Brittany enjoys the educative aspect of the role, and the opportunity to encourage and support clients to change their behaviour.

‘I assist many men who are charged with family violence offences, and taking the time to explain the law in this area is an important aspect of my work. If a respondent properly understands the order and the consequences for breaching it, this can contribute to safety for women and children.

‘I offer as much information as I can about services available to support them to change their behaviour, which assists in the broader fight against violence against women.’

Challenging the identification of women as primary aggressor

Apart from her regular caseload, Brittany has also been working on a project involving the misidentification of women as the primary aggressor in family violence cases, and how this links to the criminalisation of women.

‘It’s not uncommon for us to come across women with criminal charges or who are responding to an intervention order that arises out of a relationship where they themselves have experienced family violence.

‘Unfortunately for these women, they end up accused of being the perpetrator, and their partners are viewed as the victims.

‘It has made me aware of the extent of this issue in the Geelong area, and I’m gathering client stories from our work in order to identify trends.

‘I see this as an important project because when a woman, who is a victim herself, is charged as a perpetrator, her trust in the system is ruptured, and she is less likely to seek its protection in the future.

‘Validation and respect are so important for victim-survivors, and that’s exactly what they are denied when they are misidentified as the primary aggressor.

‘I’m hoping this project will produce some powerful data and spark conversations in our office about how we approach these cases in our day-to-day work,’ she said.

Specialist family violence courts

Victoria Legal Aid is working together with the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria and other practice partners in the development of a legal practice model for the specialist family violence courts (SFVCs).

SFVCs are a direct response to recommendations of the Royal Commission into Family Violence and several other inquiries, and will assist people to have a safer and less chaotic experience of the justice system.

More information

Get help with family violence

Family Violence Intervention Orders

Family violence safety notices

Family violence scheme

 

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