Small claims, large battles: rebuilding financial security for vulnerable women in the family law system

Family law and financial matters
Wednesday 25 July, 1210 – 1230


Tania Clarke
Women’s Legal Service Victoria

The challenges of achieving fair outcomes in property settlements are more practical than legal. Securing a property settlement in the family law system is often long, costly and complicated. Women with low income, no income or a small pool of relationship assets cannot afford the legal representation needed.
In July 2016, Women’s Legal Service Victoria (WLSV) established the Small Claims, Large Battles project to research barriers to fair financial outcomes for women within the family law system. WLSV targeted women experiencing disadvantage where the asset pool was small or consisted entirely of superannuation or debt and considered intersecting barriers to their post-separation economic recovery. The project report (published in February 2018) makes a number of recommendations and sets out findings from legal casework and qualitative client interviews.
One issue focused on in the project was access to superannuation splitting orders. Superannuation is an increasingly important asset for Australian households, and, for low-income families, it is often the largest asset. Splitting superannuation, however, is impenetrably complex and legalistic. At a broader level, difficulties in obtaining full financial disclosure from an ex-partner can delay and frustrate even the most legally straightforward matter.
Bureaucratic processes surrounding the family law property process can operate as barriers to justice and economic recovery, particularly for vulnerable women and women recovering from family violence or economic abuse. Reform to the family law system should focus on the practical and procedural accessibility of the family law system, particularly for low-income and self-represented parties.