The impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on all of us has been significant. The shock has been felt by even the most harmonious of families and couples, with the juggle of home schooling and working from home arrangements having a dramatic impact on women in particular, and in many homes reinforcing gender roles which previously may have been long forgotten. The financial impacts have also been equally devastating for many.
Imagine the impact on those who are already suffering at the hands of family violence? Their home no longer a sanctuary, but a potential warzone with no escape. The pandemic has left those victims, inside their homes with their abuser, all day and every day, with no support system and no way out.
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has estimated that the global COVID-19 lockdown will result in 15 million more cases of domestic violence around the world. In Australia, google searches about domestic violence rose 75 per cent in the first weeks of social isolation. This was also felt in our family court system, where there was a 70% increase in urgent applications to the Federal Circuit Court and a 200% increase in more serious and urgent applications to the Family Court, between the months of March and July 2020.
Whilst the Federal Government announced $150 million in extra funding to support Australians experiencing domestic, family and sexual violence due to the fallout from coronavirus, we are yet to see the immediate impact on that funding, and this has not yet reached the services that need the funding so desperately.
The move to stage 4 restrictions in Victoria on 2 August 2020 imposed a more stringent regime on families, (including the removal of childcare) preventing them from travelling more than 5km from their homes and enforcing a curfew between the hours of 8pm and 5am. It also enforced work from home arrangements for most families. The combination of these factors creates a perfect storm for family violence cases.
It was later clarified by the Andrews Government that neither the curfew nor the travel restrictions apply to those fleeing family violence. But the question has to be asked, in a stage 4 lockdown, where is there to go and what services and support can realistically be offered?
What we already know is that domestic and family violence is the most common reason given for homelessness from people seeking help from specialist support services. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 42 per cent of the clients of specialist homelessness services have experienced family and domestic violence. This can only increase significantly during the COVID 19 pandemic. It has now seen a surge in technology that facilitates abuse in the context of level 4 closures, and monitoring of internet and telephone communications, potentially blocking the only way out for those affected by domestic violence, or their ability to seek help and support.
So how do family law courts handle urgent cases of domestic violence in level 4 lockups? Thankfully, one of the most significant and positive effects of the COVID 19 pandemic is the fast-paced way in which the Court uses technology, adapts Court space to Microsoft Team and the appearance of the phone to ensure the court can continue to function and respond quickly. Another important and impactful development is the compilation of the COVID Court Register, which enables urgent cases related to pandemics, including due to family violence, to allocate a trial date within 3 days of being considered by the Court, or less if assessed as urgent.