Supporting the fight against financial abuse
A key pillar of our firm's pro bono strategy is to assist both organisations and individuals to tackle one of the most insidious forms of family violence – financial abuse.
Financial abuse occurs when someone takes away another person’s access to money, manipulates another person’s financial decisions, or uses another person’s money without their consent. Financial abuse can take many forms and often consists of several actions which take place over a period of time, rather than a single event.
It may include the following:
- limiting or denying a person access to their money or bank statements;
- using a person’s money or assets knowing that the person is unlikely to complain because they are dependent on the other person for care and support (consent or authorisation can be coerced in this situation);
- making a person pay for another person’s expenses (e.g., where they share a home with another person and do not contribute to bills, maintenance, and other expenses despite being asked to do so).
Regardless of the method used by perpetrators, the results of financial abuse can be devastating. Victims/survivors may struggle to get legal assistance, particularly if their accounts have been drained. They may be ashamed or embarrassed and reluctant to seek help. They may not even realise that what they’ve experienced is a form of abuse. Financial abuse has a significant cost to both individuals and society. It is estimated that in 2020 there were $5.7 billion in direct costs for victims and $5.2 billion in costs for the broader economy.1
The role of pro bono in addressing financial abuse
Our firm is investing significant resources to develop our pro bono financial abuse practice.
Our approach is twofold: to support the systemic advocacy of our non-profit clients; and assist victims/survivors of financial abuse seek legal redress. This approach plays to the strengths of our lawyers but also means our pro bono assistance can have a significant impact. Our lawyers also develop an intimate understanding of how systems, such as the financial services industry, can be weaponised to perpetrate abuse.
Elder financial abuse often has distinct legal pathways to seek redress, as opposed to financial abuse in intimate partner relationships. Our disputes lawyers are able to use their expertise to bring about positive outcomes for clients and we have been successful in obtaining significant financial settlements for clients.
A key part of our strategy is to support projects aimed at systemic change. Examples of our recent pro bono work include:
- Our pro bono practice and Consumer Credit Legal Service WA (CCLS), in partnership with Financial Counsellors Association of WA, Centre for Women’s Safety and Wellbeing and the Women’s Legal Services WA, held a roundtable discussion on helping women achieve financial safety through better product design, service delivery and policy in our Perth office in May this year. The roundtable explored systemic barriers to women’s financial safety across sectors and discussed the potential for improved policy, product design, and service and systems responses to financial abuse in Western Australia. Representatives from community organisations, the legal sector and financial institutions reflected on how to better identify and support women experiencing financial abuse. A key outcome from the roundtable has been the creation of the Economic Abuse Reference Group WA (EARG WA) which aims to continue developing the strategies and initiatives discussed at the event. We will continue to provide pro bono support to the EARG WA as it develops.
- The Centre for Women’s Economic Safety (CWES)2 supports women experiencing, at risk of experiencing, or recovering from economic abuse in the context of domestic and family violence. Last year, CWES released the ‘Designed to Disrupt’ report on how the banking industry can update their products to prevent and respond to financial abuse. We then worked with CWES to ‘reimagine’ banking products such as savings accounts and mortgages through a financial abuse lens. The legal advice and support we have given CWES will assist it in its advocacy work going forward.
A long road ahead
We recognise that there is no simple solution to financial abuse. It will take significant reform across many industries, as well as a commitment from state and federal governments to enact the necessary legislative changes to bring perpetrators to account. However, as we build our pro bono practice in this area and enhance our skills, we hope to become instrumental in positive social change.