WEstjustice partnership leads to alleviation of crippling debts

Our partnership with the WEstjustice community legal centre has led to the waiver of a staggering $400,000 of debt, accrued by women through economic abuse and family violence.

Many women have no idea that they owe such amounts because of an array of tactics by violent partners. Sometimes women end up owing money because of frauds committed by their partners; in other cases they are coerced into signing agreements for contracts or loans they don’t want or don’t understand.

The debts are often combined with other messy legal problems. WEstjustice’s legal and financial counselling expertise is vital in untangling these issues. Without that help, many women have no idea of where to start, and can find it virtually impossible to build a new life.

A recent example involved Sally* (not her real name). She owed more than $86,000. Within days of telling her story to WEstjustice, much of the debt was erased after they advocated on her behalf.

Born overseas, she came here on a temporary visa after her partner hoodwinked her into leaving her infant son behind. She then became what WEstjustice terms a ‘human line of credit.’ Sally was forced to work in the family business with no salary, and her husband watched her on camera to ensure she couldn’t ‘steal’ anything she was earning.

‘I was just like a slave,’ says Sally, who holds professional qualifications.

But Sally was afraid to disclose what was really happening, knowing the consequences for her safety if she did.Her fear that she would never again see her son, only five months old at the time she had to leave him, was used to control her and prevent her from taking steps to leave

‘I felt totally helpless. The stress affects your whole body,’ she says.

Meanwhile her signature was being used on a whole variety of schemes ranging from mobile phone contracts and utility bills to credit card applications and home loans. Her husband’s family all took part in the fraudulent behavior so Sally had nowhere to turn. When her son finally came to live in Australia, he was sent away to a rural area, to ensure Sally remained compliant with their schemes.

After finally being able to leave, Sally made contact with our McAuley Works program, which supports women who have experienced family violence into employment. Her case manager Lorraine quickly realized that there was no way Sally could focus on getting a job while the debts hang over her head.

‘We see that women in that situation can barely hold a conversation or think about their future with that massive worry taking up all their energies,’says McAuley Works case manager Lorraine.

WEstjustice Lawyer Dacia Abela and financial counsellor Skye Hawkins say that banks are now growing in understanding of financial abuse issues. ‘They are realizing that their products can be weaponized and used against women,’ says Dacia.

‘In Sally’s case it was quite clear there had been fraudulent behavior. At one point a bank officer had actually been concerned that she appeared reluctant when she was brought in to sign paperwork.’

After what she calls ‘the luckiest and most precious day of her life’ – when she heard the debts had been waived – Sally is now studying, and has her son back in her care. She talks about the ‘shame’ of feeling somehow responsible for her predicament. She is still sometimes at risk from her ex-partner and recently drove straight to a police station when she was being followed, only to have her concerns dismissed.

‘You feel sometimes as though they will only take it seriously if you get killed,’ Sally says