29 Nov 2018

Justice at a cost: $300k legal fees to escape domestic violence

12:28 pm on 29 November 2018

It took two years and more than $300,000 in legal fees for a Kiwi domestic violence survivor to win the right to keep her kids in New Zealand.

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Legal fees left the family close to financial ruin. Photo: RNZ

Susan is one of the many women forced back to Australia through the international Hague Convention, having fled the country with her children after suffering abuse at the hands of her partner.

She wants to highlight the problems with how Australia treats New Zealand citizens, and force through changes that would prevent more women going through her situation.

For Susan, whose real name is withheld, it was when her husband wrapped his hands around her throat that she found the courage to leave a relationship, which had included six years of violence.

The violence had extended to her two children, with her eldest son suffering abuse from his father as well.

Susan fled Australia at the advice of her doctor, told it was the only way she could escape her husband's wrath.

She approached RNZ while explaining that she was a success story, one of the lucky ones who was able to return to Australia and fight her case through the courts.

But her case still came at a tremendous cost.

When she was ordered back to Australia, her husband was given the flight details so he'd know when his children were scheduled to arrive.

Terrified of the prospect of violence, Susan's mother paid for an early flight back and helped her gain a protection order against her husband.

With no access to Australian legal aid, her mother forked out $20,000 in court costs to obtain the order.

It meant the children could land in Australia without the risk of their dad crashing their arrival.

"I'm fortunate in that my mum cashed up all of her retirement money," Susan said.

"She sold off everything she possibly could to fund the legal battle because she knew, if I didn't get out of the country, there would be no future for the kids and I."

Susan described her mum as a hero.

Not only did she cash in her retirement funds, but she sold everything she could to help fund Susan's court cases.

It's left the family close to financial ruin, with Susan's mum now selling her house.

Legal costs through the Magistrates Court and the Family Court came to about $300,000. The family court trial which lasted nearly two weeks, cost Susan $150,000 on its own.

It wasn't just Susan's mum who came to the party - her sister and a large number of friends in New Zealand also got their wallets out.

Her sister paid for their accommodation for about a year as they moved from apartment to apartment with no way of securing a long-term lease.

Susan tried to get money by her own means, but hit a brick wall. She even tried to claim nearly $40,000 in Australian superannuation, which she had built up during a decade working in Australia, but was declined.

She didn't meet financial hardship criteria to claim her superannuation because she wasn't on a benefit. Because she is a New Zealander, she didn't qualify for the benefit in the first place.

For the final seven months of the two-year process, Susan and her children stayed at Yourtown refuge in Queensland.

Karen, the manager of the refuge, said they've helped a large number of Kiwi women.

"There are a lot of New Zealand women who are accessing refuges in Australia," Karen said.

"[They] are financially challenged because of being New Zealanders and being unable to access our primary payments over here."

She said Susan's case wasn't unique, but said she was one of the lucky ones.

Most women in Susan's situation ended up representing themselves in the Australian courts, and she said without success.

Gina Masterton is working towards a PHD at Griffith University in Queensland, focussing her studies on the Hague Convention.

She said Hague Convention law needed to change, and Kiwis should be treated better by the Australian government.

"Over the last 20, 25 years, different governments have definitely changed the rules when dealing with New Zealanders.

"For these women who are leaving with the clothes on their backs, to come to this civilised country and have to be homeless, and to not have any support from our government, it's just ridiculous," she said.

"It's wrong. It's a violation of human rights, I think."

When Susan finally won her Family Court case, granting her custody and allowing her to bring her children back to New Zealand, there were still provisions that were tough for her to stomach.

The judge dismissed the fact Susan and the children had a protection order against the father, allowing him visitation rights during each school holiday.

The first of those is coming up soon, and Susan said she was terrified about coming face to face with her abuser.

But, as Susan said, she was in a fortunate situation in that she was able to fight through the Australian courts.