Better practice in responding to family violence
- Principle One: Develop an informed approach that works for the organisation
- Principle Two: Lead from the top and demonstrate accountability
- Principle Three: Prioritise safety and choice for victim-survivors
- Principle Four: Build a culture of awareness, internally and externally
- Principle Five: Acknowledge and address barriers to access
Better practice in responding to family violencePublished 06 August 2019
Respond to the financial impacts of family violence
Family violence can have significant financial impacts for victim-survivors, whether or not economic abuse is part of the abuse. Victim-survivors may need to leave possessions behind if they leave in a crisis situation, and will have many ongoing legal and financial issues to navigate. Family violence is the most common cause of homelessness for women in Victoria.
Economic abuse – a form of family violence
Economic abuse (or financial abuse) is a form of family violence where perpetrators control their partners through their finances. For example, a perpetrator may limit their partner’s access to money or avoid responsibility for debts, deliberately leaving the burden to the victim-survivor. This can continue after a relationship has ended where the victim-survivor is left with financial arrangements entered into with their former partner. A perpetrator may fraudulently create a new account in the victim-survivor’s name and intentionally accumulate debt.
A common form of economic abuse is accumulating debt and disconnecting, or threatening to disconnect, utilities. The perpetrator may also threaten not to pay bills, jeopardising the victim-survivor’s credit record. A poor credit rating can impact on a victim-survivor’s ability to establish financial independence or access housing and other services.
Debt management and joint accounts
Many businesses have adopted processes to ensure victim-survivors of family violence with joint debts are not disadvantaged after separation. This reflects 2014 research of the Consumer Utilities Advocacy Centre (now the Consumer Policy Research Centre) which found that some utility providers require victim-survivors to seek consent from their perpetrator (the other account holder) to terminate a joint account, putting them at significant risk of further violence.
Wannon Water has established processes for managing, suspending or waiving debt for customers affected by family violence. In deciding to waive or suspend debt it prioritises safety and flexibility for customers.
Case study – Wannon Water
When working with a customer affected by family violence, staff members will discuss with the customer the options that may be available to them. The customer decides what will happen, allowing them to have more control of their situation and building their ongoing relationship with the business. Wannon Water found their customers felt better knowing that they are in control and options including suspending debt allowed them space to focus on other issues.
For the business, Wannon Water found that debt increased for a period but by allowing smaller more regular payments or suspending debt for a period of time the customer can pay at an amount and time that is suitable and affordable for them. From Wannon Water’s perspective, the impact of having the increase in debt is minimal compared to the benefits for its local community and the business’s reputation both internally and externally.
As part of this work Wannon Water has built better relationships with community organisations that are helping customers affected by family violence. Support workers from these organisations feel more confident in supporting Wannon Water customers knowing that they have options available for their clients in regards to debt management.
Many industries are considering approaches to this work, including sensitive and constructive ways to recover joint debts, identifying circumstances where debt will be waived or suspended, and providing payment difficulty assistance. Commonwealth Bank recognises that financial abuse may include instances where a victim-survivor is coerced into taking out loans, debts and or credit cards in their name. It published a guide, 'Addressing Financial Abuse' to help address this.
Case study – Commonwealth Bank
Addressing Financial Abuse is a booklet developed by the Commonwealth Bank aimed at domestic and family violence support workers to help affected people establish financial independence as a key step in leaving an abusive relationship. The booklet provides guidance on the simple steps that can be taken to promote financial independence, such as opening up a new personal bank account; financial safety planning; freezing joint accounts and changing account passwords. It is available in 16 community languages.
Commonwealth Bank can provide a range of financial assistance, including deferring debt, reducing payments and not recording poor credit history against the victim-survivor’s name, depending on the customers’ circumstances.
Gas and electricity retailers must consider the impact of debt recovery and whether other people are responsible for the debt before taking action to recover arrears. Nothing prevents a retailer from waiving, suspending or repurchasing the debt of an affected customer.
See 106I of the Energy Retail Code.
Water businesses must specify the water business's approach to debt management and recovery where a customer is affected by family violence, including debt recovery from joint accounts and suspension or waiving of debt.
Assistance for payment difficulty
Businesses can support customers affected by family violence by extending support under their existing payment difficulty assistance or hardship policies. This may include offering flexible arrangements tailored to a customer’s circumstances even if the customer is not yet in arrears.
WEstjustice reports that in many instances, staff have struggled to recognise family violence as a reason for payment difficulty assistance; thereby limiting the options provided to a customer. By offering financial assistance even where it appears a customer experiencing family violence is not yet in dire need, organisations send a powerful message to that customer that they aren’t alone, and there is help available should they need it.
North East Water recognises that family violence can lead to financial hardship that can take years to overcome and that some customers will never financially recover. It encourages staff to consider complete or part waivers of debt and long-term payment arrangements, depending on the customer’s capacity to pay.
“We only noticed a positive impact on our business, employees and customers. The business is building a reputation as a compassionate and empathetic business, employees feel a sense of reward at being able to assist and our customers are overwhelmed with the offer of a debt waiver.” – North East Water
Gippsland Water sought to support its customer through flexible payment options and solutions to managing debt on a closed account. It realised that giving the customer options and respecting her wishes on how to handle the debt, helped restore the agency and financial independency of the customer.
Case study – Gippsland Water
Gippsland Water had a customer who was left with a debt in her name only for a property she shared with her ex-partner. The account was now closed and the debt was identified as a form of financial abuse.
The customer was adamant that she wanted to pay the debt. As part of its response Gippsland Water considered what options it had to assist the customer to pay the debt while supporting her decision.
Gippsland Water applied the concession rebate and backdated it where possible and entered into an affordable payment arrangement. It also agreed to match each payment she made.
This example highlights the need to include the customer in decision making and the range of options that can be offered to assist customers pay out their debt.
Optus promotes a customer’s personal and financial security through flexible options that reflect the customer’s individual needs.
“The support Optus provides leaves customers feeling valued and supported and provides a sense of relief for our customers. Providing outcomes that are financially sustainable for the customer removes some of the pressure they’re experiencing.” – Optus
Case study – Optus
After leaving a family violence situation a customer sought assistance from Optus in relation to multiple services in her name. With the assistance from support networks, it became clear that the customer was not the beneficiary of all of the services, and could not sustain the payments on her Centrelink income.
With assistance from the customer’s support worker, Optus established that it was safe to cancel the perpetrator’s service from the customer’s account. It also released the customer from the contract at no charge.
To ensure affordability and to keep the customer connected with their own service, Optus applied a 50 per cent discount to the rate plan, reducing the minimum monthly cost to an affordable amount.
Options available to Optus customers who are affected by family violence include, but are not limited to:
- release from contract at no additional cost where economic abuse is present
- 50% discount on their mobile rate plan up to 24 months
- free number change
- short or long-term payment arrangements
- debt not pursued.