Alternative Law Journal
In its 1994 Equality Before the Law: Justice for Women report, the Law Reform Commission said the need for women’s legal services was extreme in rural and isolated areas. The Commission found that general legal services were inadequate in rural and remote areas and that specific legal services that cater for women’s needs were virtually non-existent.
The Commission found that as a consequence women in these areas, especially Indigenous women, were profoundly disadvantaged in terms of their access to the justice system. The problem, the Commission found, was that in many rural and remote areas the population was too small to support a legal service.
A further problem for Indigenous women is that the isolation they often feel is not just a matter of distance, but also of marginalisation, not only within the non-Indigenous community, but also within the Indigenous community. This is especially critical when it comes to domestic violence, as Indigenous women in rural and remote communities are often not aware of their rights and where and how to access assistance.
In a 1998 Survey of Queensland Women carried out by the Queensland Government’s Office of Women’s Affairs, almost one-third of Indigenous women reported being victims of domestic violence compared to just over 13% of non-Indigenous women. In fact, according to the Crime Research Centre of the University of Western Australia, an Aboriginal woman is 45 times more likely to be a victim of domestic violence than a non-Aboriginal woman.
The issue of domestic violence in Indigenous communities, according to the Law Reform Commission, is closely linked with the historical disempowerment, social inequality, poverty and marginalisation of Indigenous people.
Legal Aid Queensland saw the use of PC videoconferencing as a means of addressing some of these issues. Networking the Nation funding enabled it to become a reality. Women’s Justice Network was launched in 1999. The network was fully operational in August of that year.
The project has established PC videoconferencing units in community-based organisations in 18 communities across southwest Queensland. The area is larger than Victoria. Through these ‘sites’ women can access legal information from the Legal Aid Queensland website and receive legal advice via the videoconference. Advice appointments are available every day; provided by seven Services. As well as Women’s Legal Aid and the Brisbane and Toowoomba offices of Legal Aid Queensland, solicitors from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (Brisbane), the South-East Queensland Aboriginal Legal Service (Toowoomba), and the Women’s Legal Service (Brisbane) are linked into the network. The Women’s Justice Network website contains:
• a guide on how to access the videoconferencing equipment and make an appointment for legal advice;
• database of legal information;
• connections to website information;
• a diary system to make an appointment online to speak with a solicitor.
The network is a collaborative effort. It has involved collaborative partnering between Legal Aid Queensland, Community Legal Centres, Aboriginal Legal Services, community-based organisations and government departments. It is not unusual for services to work together in rural areas; it is unusual for partnerships to occur in this way across the region. Service providers have been motivated to work together by wanting to ensure rural women have reasonable access to the range of services they need when they have a legal problem.
Women’s Justice Network was evaluated in August 2000. The evaluation report is available on the WJN website <www. wjn.legalaid.qld.gov.au>. Rural women and community organisations have welcomed the use of this technology for service delivery. The evaluation indicated the essential role of the site coordinators and the community workers in rural communities that act as the first point of contact for, and their need for ongoing effective support. Further it highlighted the concern rural people experience at seeing a resource targeted to only one group in the population. While the rural workers acknowledge the need to support women, having a place labelled ‘women only’ makes the service too obvious and detracts from its safety. Further with the limitations of services available, workers like to see resources available to all. As such, the future for Women’s Justice Network will be a broader client group focus and rename. It will become the Rural Advice and Information Network. Legal.
Beyond the legal advice, the PC videoconferencing network has been used for:
• remote witnesses for courts,
• visits by families to people in prisons,
• family law mediation sessions,
• sexual assault counselling, speech therapy consultations, special education support,
• TAFE training,
• supervision for rural workers,
• education broadcasts to up to 22 sites simultaneously, and
• consultations: DVRS; disability; family law pathways.
These uses will increase familiarity with the technology and begin to bring multiple services to one venue, enabling a woman in crisis to receive a range of services, when she needs them, in a coordinated way.
[*] Louise Whitaker is Project Manager, Legal Aid Queensland. She can be contacted on 1300 65 11 88.
© 2001 Louise Whitaker