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Caroline: While many of us understand domestic violence isn't always physical, people can often find it difficult to recognise and understand the more subtle forms of DV. Legal Aid Queensland's lawyers work every day with people who have experienced all forms of domestic violence. Today, we are chatting with two of our consumer law experts, Paul Holmes and Loretta Kreet, both senior lawyers in our Civil Justice Services, about one of the lesser understood forms of DV, financial abuse. Paul and Loretta, why don't you tell us about the areas you would normally cover as consumer advocates?
Paul: Okay. Thank you, Caroline. So, we're a part of the Consumer Protection Unit in Civil Justice Services. So, what that means is we help people having trouble with credit, debt, insurance products, and other products like that. So, what that means is we help people in trouble with mortgages, credit cards, car loans, personal loans, consumer leases, insurance products, and other small amount loan type products.
Loretta: There's even more, Paul. There are energy contracts, body corporate fees, council rates, and those pesky Buy Now Pay Later schemes or products.
Paul: Very true. Buy Now Pay Later though is a subject for another day, I think Loretta.
Caroline: And I'm assuming that would also include the general utilities as well.
Caroline: So as consumer advocates in the civil law area, obviously there must be a bit of a crossover into the realms of family law and domestic violence.
Loretta: So, what generally happens is that people often don't want to talk about domestic violence. And so, they often come to Legal Aid and present with one problem, which might very well be that they have a debt issue. And [then] when you dig around a bit, you find that there are underlying issues. And one of those underlying issues might be domestic violence. That's right, isn't it Paul?
Paul: It is. And in some cases what we get are referrals directly from the family lawyers who've seen the DV and have picked up that there are debt issues associated with that. It [the referrals] could come to us in both ways.
Loretta: And that's very true. Yeah, or from the community, and in fact, as well.
Caroline: So, what you're saying is financial control is a recognised form of abuse in the Family Law Act 1975.
Loretta: That's so true. It's all recognised both in the Family Law Act 1975 and under the state legislation as well. So, in the Family Law Act 1975 it singles out two areas where a person might be suffering from economic or financial abuse. And those two areas are where they... where the person unreasonably denies the family member their financial autonomy that he or she would otherwise have had, or unreasonably withholds financial support needed to meet family expenses. The state Act also refers to having people forced into signing for loans or signing guarantees. So, it's even broader and goes into more detail.
Paul: [In] a lot of ways though, the state Act unpacks a bit those definitions in the Family Law Act 1975. Because the Family Law Act 1975 definitions are very legalistic, let's be honest. And [it] talk[s] about financial autonomy and things most people don't understand. What people in community understand is being forced to take out a loan, or only being given $50 a week to spend and having to justify all of those expenses and things like that, and the state Act I think does a really good job of trying to explain that in a way that the community can better understand.
Loretta: It's one of the other things that I always think about is where the person may take the other person's goods and dispose of them or destroy them, or especially when there's loans in relation to those, or guarantees.
Paul: The classic [example] being driving the car away, [and] crashing it, knowing that the car loan is in the person experiencing the violence’s name, and knowing that the loan company can't come after very easily the person who's done the damage.
Caroline: Okay. So we're starting to get into the area of recognising what financial abuse is, and it can be really hard to recognise it, but there are obviously some warning signs as well, whether you're experiencing it, or whether you're watching it as a bystander. In your view, what should people be looking for?
Paul: I think the big one to start with is if you've had to give up passwords to your bank accounts. That's a big one because that's the first sign, I think, of somebody trying to restrict your ability to do anything financially. And when I say ability to do anything financially, [I mean] what they're seeking to do is make it really hard for you to leave the relationship. And if they know what you're spending because they've got access to your bank accounts then they can do their very best, and often be very successful, at making sure you don't have the financial capability to leave them.
Loretta: In our work, particularly because it's around people coming to us who have mortgages, car loans, or those sorts of things, the warning signs are often when people have left the relationships and the debts [are] left behind. We used to call it “sexually transmitted debt”, because that's exactly what it was. It was a phrase coined in the 90s. But the sort of things that we talk about and that are not so obvious are, like you said, restricting access to money so you only have a certain amount of money to go and do things, and it's very tightly controlled about how that money's spent.
Paul: And wrapped up in that is the idea is you've got to justify what you've spent the money on so they can track your spending.
Paul: Which makes it really hard to do or take steps to escape a relationship that's gone bad. It's also very difficult, I guess, to have any money to leave if you're not able to go to work, for a variety of reasons. I've certainly seen examples where there’s... let's say there's been pretty close to continual pregnancy over a number of years and that sets up a relationship where the person experiencing the violence is either forever pregnant or looking after young children. And let's be honest, most people are very reluctant to leave young children at the best of times, let alone when there's a risk of the young child being exposed to that type of violence if they... particularly if they leave.
Loretta: Just recently, I heard about someone who had gone to the supermarket and had been asked to buy two things from the supermarket, and rang up their partner and said “There's not enough money in the bank account,” and the partner said to the person experiencing violence ”Well if you put back the thing back that you're purchasing, that's extra [then] you'll have enough money in the bank account to pay for this.” We were talking about something that costs two dollars. So, it wasn't like a whole lot of money.
Paul: So, we're not talking situations where we're dealing with hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Loretta: No, it can be very small amounts of money. And it can be... and in situations where it's not necessarily the case where the person's at home, this was the person that was working, so [they] should have really had access to their own money. It was combined income of the family’s.
Paul: But even in those situations, as you just highlighted, people who outwardly would appear to be in control actually have very little control in the relationship. And that's a really important thing to remember. Just because public-facing, they look like they have some financial control, the reality is in these relationships, they don't.
Paul: There's no one thing that highlights the control in this financial abuse scenario. It can be any one of a number of things, or it could be all of those things that are impacting that particular relationship and that person experiencing the violence.
Loretta: And that's why sometimes you have to do the digging — it's not sometimes obvious on the surface. Sometimes you just say, “What did you say? Is that really what happened?” I mean that was the case in that particular one about the spending. I was very taken aback by hearing that story.
Paul: But they're... that's in a way... they're the good scenarios because that's where somebody trusts you enough to say that information.
Paul: And that's a really big thing for people in the space — to be able to trust [you] enough to tell at least some of their story.
Caroline: Okay, so let's break this down to some pretty clear examples that you see on a daily basis. So, you know say a couple has a home loan or a car loan or say a personal loan even, what are some examples that you've seen around abuse with loans and debt?
Paul: Okay. So, the classic [example], I think, is joint mortgages.
Loretta: Absolutely, and it's a big one because often one party is very interested in staying in the home, because they might have family responsibilities – this is the only home that the children might have had. And they're very concerned that they maintain that residence for their children, but at the same time that they protect themselves from abuse that they might be under.
Paul: So, two classic scenarios. One is you've got the person experiencing the violence [who] stays in the home, and the other party in the relationship leaves. Often in that scenario the person experiencing the violence either hasn't been working or doesn't have enough income to service the mortgage by themselves. What that means is the other party leaving the relationship senses a way to keep control over the person experiencing the violence. And how do they do that?
Loretta: There might be a number of ways. So, there might have been an arrangement where the person who's left the home has said that they will pay their share of the mortgage and then they don't end up paying the mortgage. And so that puts an enormous amount of stress on the person that stays in the family home, because they think how are they going to be able to pay for this. And in other cases, there might have been an arrangement that they would pay in lieu of child support. So again, they might have entered into an informal arrangement thinking that would keep the other party happy, and they end up in a much worse position because they can't afford that payment on their own.
Paul: And this can even be contrary to existing family court orders.
Loretta: Absolutely. How does that person manage the abuse that's happened or the economic abuse, but also manages to get themselves into a situation where they can either keep that home for themselves or find somewhere else they can live.
Paul: And then the contrary scenario is the person experiencing the violence actually has to leave the house and the other party to the relationship stays. And the classic we see there, and I've heard this threat made a number of times, “I'm going to stay in the house and ruin you financially until the police come and remove me.’” That's the classic scenario there, isn't it?
Loretta: Absolutely, and it's very difficult to do something about that in the short term. Yeah, obviously in the long term, there are things that can be done, but it often means the person who's coming to see us who's left the home and is saying, “How can I sell this home or how can I make sure he or she pays the mortgage?” It's a really difficult situation. And they’re often [already] struggling to rent.
Paul: And the reason is when you've got a joint mortgage, you're both responsible for the entirety of the loan. And the people experiencing the violence aren't in a position to pay the loan, because by leaving the relationship they're not only having to look at trying to pay the mortgage, they're looking at paying rent on top of that. It's just not possible for most people in that position.
Caroline: I’m assuming also if there are kids involved, they are also paying for the children's upkeep as well and running a household outside of that other property.
Paul: Yeah, exactly.
Loretta: And this is a way of maintaining control in the relationship because the person that's left the home wants to ensure they don't have any defaults on their credit report and also want to maintain the equity in that property. Because the longer the person stays in the property – the co-borrower stays in the property – [and] the more the equity is stripped out of that property. And especially if they force the bank to go and take the legal action... of course, there are huge legal costs added.
Paul: And when we say, equity, Loretta, we're saying that's the amount of money you'll get after the mortgage gets paid out and the house is sold. So, what's left over after all the debt is paid associated with the house.
Loretta: And the reality is if people can sell their property themselves, they're much more likely to get a much better price than if the bank forecloses and sells that property.
Paul: When we’re talking foreclosure it's where the bank takes action to take the property from you and sells it themselves.
Loretta: I think foreclosure is a much better word, Paul. It encapsulates that principle.
Paul: It does for lawyers. But my experience of clients is, it's not a word that most of our clients have heard. They better understand the practical outcome, which is that they have to leave the house, and [understanding] the importance of finding alternative accommodation before the bailiff comes knocking on the door and physically takes you out of the house. Because there's nothing worse for a person than experiencing somebody removing you from what was your safe place
Loretta: But sometimes in those situations where the person who has...
Paul: …the person who's remained in the home after the person experiencing the violence has left...
Loretta: That person, may often not realise that this may be the ultimate thing that happens to them, that in fact, they are evicted. But they are so into controlling the other party that they're willing to put themselves through that as well.
Caroline: Moving on, people obviously have other loans and financial commitments as well. What are some of the examples of financial control there?
Paul: I think guarantees is another big one.
Paul: We will often see people who are in a relationship and one party in the relationship already has bad credit and the only way they are able to go and get — it's usually car loans, or all horribly to me who doesn't like motorbikes — we see an awful lot of females who experience violence guaranteeing motorbike loans.
Loretta: In fact, the people think that they’re guaranteeing the motorbike loans, but they're actually either the main borrower or the joint borrowers, or the whole loan is in their name. And like you said, they don't even ride a motorbike.
Paul: Your point there highlights the control though. And that's the idea that they're pressured into coming along to the local dealership and signing whatever documents are put in front of them, not given usually by the person they’re in the relationship with the opportunity to even read them. They’re just told “Sign here or you'll get it when we get back to the house.” And so, they sign up not understanding what it is they've even signed up to. And down the track when they’re finally able to leave the relationship, they find out they're either heavily indebted under the loan, as you point out, or have guaranteed the loan. And the person they've escaped from knows that full well and will often not pay, knowing that that's a way to ultimately ruin the person who’s left [the relationship’s] credit report.
Loretta: And especially because the good, in this case a motorbike, is something that's easily hidden...
Loretta: If the lender can't find the motorbike, they might be able to find the other person, but can't find the motorbike...
Paul: And the thing about the guarantee idea is it can follow you for a number of years because it's only once the creditor realises they can't recover the full amount of the money from the borrower, that they then go after the guarantor (or the person who’s given the guarantee). And what that means is it's possible that it might be four or five years after you've left the relationship, you suddenly get a phone call from a lender saying “pay up”, because the person you gave the guarantee for hasn't paid. And that sort of trauma that long after you've managed to leave a relationship can have a really big impact on people's ability to move on and recover.
Loretta: Lease goods are a pet hate of mine because they have really serious effects on the person escaping a domestic violence situation. And that's because with lease goods they’re often easy to dispose of.
Caroline: What type of lease goods are we talking about?
Loretta: Oh, we could be talking about TVs, phones, furniture, white goods.
Caroline: White goods?
Loretta: White goods. So, there's a number of issues. One is when the person leaves a relationship (the person experiencing violence) they leave the goods behind — they have to go. So, they have no more access to the goods. The [other] person might have destroyed those goods. And because they’re security for the loan or for the lease, if they can't come up with those goods, they often have been threatened in the past with the police, with criminal charges. And that is particularly serious, because we've seen people pay for goods that they no longer have, because they've left a domestic violence situation, or the other party has destroyed those goods. And they could be paying for those goods for years and years and years after those goods have been long gone.
Paul: And that's because under some of these contracts, there's really large, what are called termination fees, for ending the contract, which are often replacing the full value of a new good. Because that's the loss that the consumer lease company has suffered. They no longer have the good to re-rent out, or re-lease out. But those contractual terms don't really reflect or adapt themselves to people experiencing family violence very well at all. Do they?
Loretta: And these are, I think, particularly used to exercise financial control. Because the other party often knows that if the person doesn't pay then the consequences might be a complaint to the police, or may have more serious consequences than other loans — where there's no security attached to it [and] where you might have other options.
Paul: Or the other variation on that, is rather than the police, the idea that you can get a default listed on somebody's credit report [which] has the practical effect often of... we've seen clients saying, “I now can't afford to leave the relationship because I can't borrow enough money to actually escape.” And if you've got a default on your credit report, the reality is you're not being able to borrow from anybody.
I guess the other thing we should explore, that happens a fair bit more in this space, is toll debts. And I think it's really important to cover that as well. Because the consequence of a toll debt going wrong and ending up with SPER, or the State Penalties and Enforcement Register, is very serious. And so, the classic scenario there is, the toll account [which] may be in the person experiencing the violence’s name. The car may still well be in the other person's name in the relationship. And they may well drive deliberately through the tolls trying to rack that toll debt up, knowing the person can't pay it, knowing that when they can't pay it, administrative fees get added to the debt, which means the debt becomes very large. If the debt remains unpaid, the debt could end up with SPER. And one of the difficult consequences there is potentially your license can be suspended. Now, I should add the tolling companies are getting a lot better in this space at dealing with that scenario. And they have financial hardship [telephone] lines where people in that position can ring and seek help. But you've got to know to go there. And I guess that's why we're talking today, is because the importance of people dealing with any of these debts as early as possible is really high. Because the earlier you approach them, the easier it is to work your way through them.
Caroline: I guess also if you are experiencing domestic violence and your ex has taken the car and they're running up and down the tollway, are you able to even call the toll people and say “Hey, listen, this is my rego, or this is the rego?”
Paul: ...shut the account off.
Paul: Absolutely, you can. Assuming the toll account is in your name...
Caroline: Well, that's the problem. And I suppose you only find out later, don't you... in that case when you start getting the bills accruing?
Loretta: I suppose if the car’s still registered in your name, the problem is the tolls are still being raised against the person in whose name the car is. So, this is a really good way that somebody can exercise financial control over another person. And that's actually quite complex in terms of wiggling yourself out of that. So, yes, you can cancel your toll account. But if the car's still in your name... you need legal advice, you know.
Paul: Absolutely, the other thing to be really careful of, about tolling accounts, is if the person who you've left has access to the tolling account, potentially they can track where you've moved to, and that's another really important thing to be aware of in this space.
Loretta: And if you've left and you haven't updated your address details because you've left suddenly and the last thing you'd be thinking about is tolls — that you think are only three dollars or whatever — you know, one toll. And you don't tell the tolling company that you've moved then those debts can add up very quickly without you even knowing about it.
Paul: And worse still, the account gets to the address where you've left.
Loretta: That's the problem... where the person who can...
Paul: … now be aware of where you've been driving...
Loretta: ...or if they're the ones doing the driving, can just not pass on the information that...
Caroline: So, what about things like Centrelink debts as well?
Loretta: Centrelink debts can be challenged. But we just suggest that people get legal advice about that. If Centrelink raises a debt against them, get some legal advice. And in fact, this is always an important thing. I know we're going to talk about where you can go for help, but I always think get help early and you know, make sure to ring Legal Aid. It's a really good resource. It really gives you lots of information about what you can do and where you can go. And I know we're going to talk about that a bit later, but I just thought in relation to Centrelink debt, it's such an important message.
Caroline: We do have specialists in that area, don’t we?
Paul: Yes, we do.
Caroline: Yeah, and so when it comes to people's financial health, how about telling us about some of the other forms you've seen, like say restricting access to money, just in general?
Paul: So this goes back to the idea I was talking about earlier around passwords often. And either you have no accounts in the person’s (experiencing the violence) name, or if they do have an account, they're forced to give up the password, so that the person controlling the relationship has access to everything they're doing in a financial sense. And they often end up picking at every purchase that the person experiencing the violence makes, with the idea of making them think they're not able to handle their own finances. And so [they] gradually give up their control to the person who ends up controlling the relationship. And once that happens — when you've got no access to money — you can't go anywhere, or it's extremely hard to go anywhere. And the other ways they do that, and this is one we started to talk about earlier, is credit reports. That's a really big one Loretta, isn't it?
Loretta: Yes, and I mean this would be a generalisation across the community, but for most people their credit report is very important. They do not want a default on their credit report. And therefore even if there's an arrangement that the other party pay for an account, if the debt collector or the lender says [to] the party escaping family violence that if they don't pay, they're going to get a default on their credit report. Guess what? They pay. And if the other party knows that, they're going to use that, in terms of controlling them.
Paul: And that happens not just across loans. That also happens across telecommunications contracts for phones. Happens across utilities as well. It's not just in loan contracts that behavior happens. Does it?
Loretta: Absolutely. And because to get access to a credit report, you have to belong to an ombudsman scheme. It's really important to go and ask that creditor for help early on. If you can get in early on (before the default is listed), you're much more likely to be able to negotiate with the creditor as to what might be a solution to the issue. But it's really important to get in early on.
Paul: You mentioned ombudsman. For people who haven’t experienced an ombudsman before, what are we talking about?
Loretta: It's really a complaints body. So, the general thing in our area, particularly with loans and utilities and energy contracts, those sorts of things, everybody.... there is a complaints body that you can go to. We used to always call them ombudsman schemes, but now there's. there's one big one for financial services - that's the Australian Financial Complaints Authority.
Paul: And there's one for telcos.
Loretta: And there's one for energy contracts as well.
Paul: But I guess the question is, why would our clients bother using them?
Loretta: Well because they might be able to help them. If their creditor doesn't help them, they can go there with their complaint.
Caroline: So, let's take it back to basics. If you are struggling to pay your bill because your ex has stopped helping you financially, or that bill’s just marching on, because you've had to leave that house. And you contact that provider and you explain that to them, are they by law expected to work through some hardship policy with you or what's the process there?
Loretta: They are expected to work through a hardship policy with you, in financial services, in relation to telecommunications accounts, and in relation to energy accounts. And if they don't work with you then you have the right to go to the complaint service and ask the complaint service to work out a workable solution for you. I did want to mention this because sometimes people come to us, particularly in the mortgage space, and say “Well I'm in hardship. I've had a separation. I'm a victim of domestic or family violence, and I should never have to pay this loan back — my situation isn't going to change.” It doesn't mean that you get to walk away from the loans because you're in hardship. It just means that, if it's possible, and you can pay the account in the long term, they should work with you to work a solution. But it's not about release of loans.
Paul: And the solution can involve giving you time to sell the asset or the house yourself. Can't it?
Paul: Because that solution involves you paying the loan.
Paul: The other thing worth saying quickly about complaints bodies, that's really important for our audience, is that they’re free, even if you lose. So, there's no risk, like could happen sometimes in family court proceedings, that you have your complaint heard and you end up having to pay costs. It doesn't happen with any of these complaint bodies. And that's really important, I think.
Caroline: And so still talking houses and say, you’re not in a mortgage situation, but you’re both renting, there's always the risk of being blacklisted. Isn't there?
Loretta: If you don't do the right thing with your rental agreements — yes, there is. And the biggest listing company in Australia is a private company called TICA. And that's a database real estate agents can access about tenants. So, tenants can be blacklisted for a number of reasons. And the problem is that often where there's domestic violence, there's more likely to be issues where there's termination for poor behavior. So, for example, if there's a lot of shouting or damage to the property...
Paul: Damage to the property is a big one.
Loretta: ...by one of the joint tenants. And that makes it nearly impossible, even if the person experiencing violence [is the one] who may not have damaged the property, to actually get a tenancy.
Caroline: And you also hear about people who've had to flee the house, but the house is in their name on the rent. And yet the house is still being lived in, and they're still being charged rent, but they can't afford to pay for it.
Paul: Yeah and terminating the lease in that scenario can often prove very difficult for somebody who's fled the relationship, having experienced violence. The important thing is to communicate with your real estate as early as you possibly can, if you find yourself in this position. And try and head off the prospect of being listed. Because in our experience, once you are listed on the TICA database, it can prove very difficult to get yourself back off it.
Caroline: Because there is a period where you're blacklisted for, isn't there?
Loretta: Three years... But that's a long time to be on that, [and] to not be able to find rental accommodation.
Caroline: Particularly if you're in a smaller town too, where the accommodation’s difficult to find to start with.
Paul: And let's be honest in smaller towns, those sorts of experiences arguably become more easily known than they do in a larger city.
Loretta: And the complaints mechanism for TICA listings are not that good. So, you don't have the access to a complaints body like AFCA. You only have one avenue which is through the Privacy Commissioner, which can be a very difficult process.
Paul: And you end up there in the Queensland Civil and Administrative tribunal. Don't you?
Loretta: For some issues, yes.
Caroline: And I suppose the best place, really, if you need advice for this is the Tenants Queensland - QSTARS.
Paul: Yeah, completely agree there. They're the experts in this space.
Caroline: And so looking at telecommunication companies, I know we've looked at this briefly, that also poses a problem for people wanting to deal with their accounts in future too, if they've got outstanding debts there?
Loretta: Unlike some of the lenders and creditors where there's proper domestic violence policies (even at the bank level), telephone companies don't generally have those policies. And we have seen people have five [or] six mobile phones that have been given to one of the parties. And they've been sold — either hawked by the other party or you know, pawned at a pawnbroker [and] sold, or they've — when they've left the relationship obviously — they've taken the phone with them. But the contract is still payable by the other party and they can't get the phone back. So often what's happened in the past, is sometimes telephone companies have suggested it will think about releasing or waving that debt, but we want the phone back. And so, it's really not a solution — a workable solution. Or, they sell the phone or hawk it, which breaches their contract. And again, that's one of the things that might mean that they could make a complaint to police.
Paul: So, let's just separate that out a bit Loretta.
Loretta: Oh good. Because I like to talk a bit!
Paul: Yes. So, there's a couple of scenarios in the telco space. You've talked a little bit there about them hawking the phone. Yes, the issue with them hawking the phone comes up when they're leasing the phone, because when they're leasing the phone, they don't actually own it.
Paul: And so, by selling it, they're arguably dealing with that phone in a way they're not entitled to, because they don't own it. It's a different scenario if they're buying the phone as part of the contract.
Loretta: Yes, but often in [the first instance], when it's under contract, they're not allowed to sell the phone either, because it's security for that contract.
Paul: Yeah, but what I'm saying is that's a different discussion to it's a rental contract.
Loretta: Absolutely. Yes.
Paul: So if it's a sale contract the thing that goes wrong there is it's often hard to get a resolution that doesn't involve the person experiencing the violence having to pay some, or all of the cost of the phone.
Loretta: Yes. Or the other party may destroy that phone as well. So, they either take it, or destroy it. Those sorts of issues.
Paul: Because that's just another way of exerting control.
Loretta: And one of the things that they often do, is that when people go in, and they're asked to be the reference and they sign for these contracts, is that they're not [the contract holder] the other party is. So, they're the ones providing their email address. Obviously, they've got the phone, so it's their phone number that the telephone company is calling. And they often have authorisation on the account. So, the things that I've particularly seen in my practice is that the person experiencing the domestic violence only is aware of what the problem is, once the contract’s already been cancelled, and there's been a huge bill. Now that bill might be, you know, $1,500. If you're on a pension that might as well be $15,000. So, it's a really serious problem for the person who's fled that domestic violence situation.
Caroline: So let's look now at not just organisations failing to look after people who are experiencing domestic violence, but potentially, creating more problems for them, particularly when it comes to their privacy. Tell us about some of the issues you've seen there?
Paul: Well, I guess the starting point is for people experiencing the violence, they can get confused by the fact that different companies can have very different approaches to how they deal with people experiencing violence, and what sort of information they want. And that can create confusion. You can have companies who just accept the person's word — that they're in the violence. And companies right at the other end of the spectrum, who want various Federal Court [of Australia] orders showing that there's evidence of the violence. And having to rehash that experience in trying to get a real resolution can be really confronting. Second issue is a privacy one, particularly on joint accounts. And companies are getting much better at this, I think it's fair to say, but in the past we have seen examples where inadvertently a person experiencing violence’s new address gets sent out on a letter that has [the] person controlling the relationship’s address and then the person experiencing the violence address, and both sets of addresses are on both letters sent out to both parties.
Paul: And companies, particularly the banks, are doing a lot of work to try and make sure this doesn't ever happen again. And that's to their credit. But in the past, it has happened. And it has a really detrimental effect on people who are trying to leave a relationship like that.
Loretta: I must say it's a tricky thing for banks and lenders to negotiate, because they don't know when they're dealing with someone, particularly in a couple situation, where there is domestic violence. So sometimes if you're in a relationship, you want your partner to have access to that information, or you don't like to have unnecessary roadblocks put in the way of obtaining the information for your joint accounts.
Paul: What I would say there though is that's a very different scenario, when there's clearly two separate addresses.
Loretta: They've really tried to work their way through that, so that they don't put unnecessary roadblocks, where one party might be the person that has, not control, but it has, you know, that's the party in the relationship that they've determined will deal with the finances. Or where there is financial control and they have to make sure that they're not disclosing information to one party — that the other party shouldn't know about. So, one of the other things that we saw is often one party might be asking for financial hardship. They, you know, the person experiencing the violence might have remained in the home [and] they've gone to the bank and said ‘look, I need some hardship assistance’ and they've said you have to speak to your ex-partner. Which...
Paul: ... which the law doesn't support that view.
Paul: The law is really clear. To get financial hardship, you don't need the ‘okay’ of the other person who's jointly on the loan.
Caroline: And I believe the Australian Financial Complaints Authority has laid that out pretty clearly. Haven’t they?
Loretta: There is actually a guide that you can access. And that website is a very good website to access if you need help around loans and you're experiencing family violence.
Caroline: We will make sure we provide a link to that along with this recording. So, we've spent a lot of time discussing a range of situations people have found themselves in because of domestic and family violence and financial control. Lots of time spent talking about their problems. Why don't we have a bit of a chat about solutions? If people are having trouble dealing with their creditors, what are some tips that you might have, or do you have a checklist that they can use for dealing with creditors?
Paul: I think the big one and the really important one is, seek help as early as you possibly can. And by seeking help, it can be enough to say to them, “I can't pay.” It doesn't need to be any more complicated than that, because these organisations now have processes that should be able to deal with somebody going “I can't pay.” And if they don't, you're able to take that to higher levels within the bank or the company and then on to the complaints bodies, like the Australian Financial Complaints Authority we were talking about. There are mechanisms there to protect you, but you've got to feel comfortable accessing them. And what we're saying is it's okay to say, “I need help.”
Loretta: I also like to add it's okay to ring somebody like Legal Aid. Even if you're going to the creditor, sometimes you don't know what options are available. There might be an option offered to you by the creditor, which you're not entirely comfortable with, or you think you want something better or something different if you have the advice as to what might be possible, you're much better able to have that conversation with the creditors. Get advice, get legal advice early on. All financial counselling advice is a good thing too, but get it as early as you can, because you're much more able to make the choices that you need to make. And the earlier on that you make the call, the more options you have.
Caroline: If somebody's making a call to whoever answers that telephone call, and they feel that they're just not being listened to, and they [can] feel pretty powerless, don't they? I mean, what can they do in that situation to perhaps escalate the need to listen to the reason they can't pay?
Paul: The really good news in this space is companies on the whole, have set up specialist units within those companies for dealing with issues associated with people experiencing family violence and the debts that come with that. So, in our experience, if you're not referred to those more specialist people, feel free to ask. If you're not comfortable with the initial experience at the call centre, I'd ask to speak to a manager. And if you're saying, “I'm experiencing family violence”, that should be enough to trigger the manager to deal with it appropriately. And if they don't, then you'd bump it up to the next level, which is what's called the ‘internal dispute resolution area’ of the company. And if they don't deal with it successfully, that's why the complaint bodies like AFCA, the Telecommunications Ombudsman, the Energy and Water Ombudsman exist — to be that circuit breaker when the communication between people experiencing violence and the company is not working as well as it should. Having said that, my experience over the past few years is [that] companies are now actually getting quite good at dealing with people experiencing family violence and all of the issues that come with that. And that's to their credit. Are they perfect? By no means. But are they significantly better than they used to be? Absolutely. And I think that's something that's really important for people to hear, because there is a lot of negative press about particularly financial institutions around the place at the moment. On this issue, I think they've done a good job. And in my experience, they're trying to get better at dealing with these issues.
Loretta: I think where the problem mostly is... that we've seen on a practical basis, is when people go into branches or the little shops. They're not so good at dealing with these complaints. And I mean that's unfortunate because they [these people] can often be the most vulnerable in the community. Generally, if you ring these companies, their processes on the phone are a lot better. I think if there’s an area that companies have to work on, it's that outward-facing service, like the little telco shops.
Paul: That's a fair call, Loretta.
Caroline: So, you've... we've... had a chat about not being afraid to ask for help. I think that's such an important step that people can take, and particularly with financial control issues with a number of organisations, where else can people get help?
Loretta: I always like to say Legal Aid Queensland is the best place for people who live in Queensland to go and call. Or if you live in one of the other states, to call that Legal Aid Commission for advice as a first port of call.
Paul: So what number is that Loretta? That's the key bit, isn’t it?
Loretta: In Legal Aid in Queensland it’s 1300 65 11 88. But also there are community legal centres, both in Queensland and across the country. There are some specialist community legal centres that have been set up in the financial services area, and they're in New South Wales and Victoria. The other number that people can call, particularly if they have financial debts, is the James Bond number.
Paul: Who is the James Bond number?
Loretta: It’s financial counsellors across Australia. And you just have to ring one number. It's 1800 007 007.
Paul: And the good bit about that number is if you're calling from within Queensland, it's answered by financial counsellors in Queensland. If you're calling within New South Wales, it's answered by financial counsellors in New South Wales.
Loretta: That's exactly right. And you might want to go and check out some Money Smart stuff. And that's at the Money Smart website set up by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission. And I think we'll put something...
Caroline: We’ll provide a link for that on the page.
Paul: And don't forget Legal Aid has a lot of very good resources on its own website, around family law, family violence and debts and family violence. So that's another good place to call.
Caroline: And for community workers who are perhaps supporting a lot of people who find themselves in this situation, who's best for them to call?
Loretta: Well again, Legal Aids are a very good resource. And if you're in Queensland, it's that 1300 65 11 88. Or you can also look at the AFCA website and they have a guide. They have some special guides about family violence and how lenders should deal with family violence issues.
Paul: Why they're important is that AFCA uses them in making their decisions. So, they put them out there to say to industry and people experiencing family violence, if you bring a complaint to us and it looks a bit like this, here's how we're likely to resolve it. And the good bit about that is, it draws people towards trying to make a resolution along those lines without you having to go to AFCA. And that's really important. Because one of the things that tires people out in this space is having to tell their story again and again, and again. And so, anything that avoids that is just so important.
Caroline: So, it could be said the examples we've discussed today are just a small part of a very, very large list of many behaviors that fall into the scope of domestic violence. Domestic violence is common and very harmful and happens in all sections of the community across all cultures. It's one of those things we say is across all borders. And being abused isn't a normal part of a healthy relationship. And the law acknowledges living free from violence is both a human right and a fundamental social value. So if you, or someone you know, is experiencing domestic violence, it's important to know what legal, financial and housing options are available to you, and that you can rely on someone to support you in the choices you do make. And finally, if you, or someone you know, is experiencing domestic violence, you're not alone, and domestic and family services can help you work out a plan to leave early. So, if you need support at any time, day or night, you can contact DV Connect on 1800 811 811. Or during work hours, you can get in touch with Legal Aid Queensland, a family relationship centre or the family relationship advice line. And Legal Aid Queensland's number yet again is 1300 65 11 88. And don't forget if you or your children are at immediate risk of harm, please call the police, don't muck around. So, in an emergency call triple zero. And I'd just like to thank Paul and Loretta very much for all your time in the chat. And we'll pop some of those handy links for everybody on the page.
Paul: Thank you.
Loretta: Thanks Caroline.
Caroline: Thank you.
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