30 April 2024

After a brief hiatus, Fitzroy Legal Service’s monthly Divorce Clinic is now back up and running to provide free one-on-one support for people in the cities of Yarra and Darebin who would otherwise face significant barriers to filing and finalising a divorce.  

Taking Senior Lawyer, Sophie Jest, up to three hours to complete, Sophie says the mandatory process to obtain a divorce under federal law is simply inaccessible for many people in the community.  

“It’s not like opening a bank account, where you can do so within a few clicks online or then go into a branch to speak to someone if you’re having difficulty,” Sophie says. “The application requires detailed information, followed by a month-long process (at best) with multiple steps that of course involves legal jargon and notable fees.

“For most people in our community this is a challenging process to navigate, particularly when under financial and emotional duress. For those facing complex parenting or financial proceedings and family violence issues, who are living with a disability, and/or have language barriers, this quickly becomes close to impossible to do without assistance.”  

At this point, finding a trusted service with experts who can explain the legal implications of divorce in Australia, who can walk you through the process in plain language, can be the difference between having agency to exit a marriage or not.

Sophie Jest, FLS Senior Lawyer

FLS’s Divorce Clinic is overseen by a Senior Lawyer who manages the referral process, provides legal advice to all clients on the day, and then cross checks all documents before being submitted.  

A team of trained volunteers then work one-on-one with each of the clients to go through the application process online over several hours, scan and upload any official documents that are required and arrange language translation when needed.  

The whole session takes a few hours

Volunteers then print all the documents for the client to review and serve on their ex- spouse to legally bring the application to their attention. The client is provided with a court hearing date, where the divorce will either be granted or adjourned if the court requires further information.  

“The whole initial session takes a few hours, but by the time we’re done, we find people are grateful with it being something they’ve wanted to do for a very long time,” Sophie says. 

“It’s a highly emotional time for many. When you go through the application you specify when the married couple started living together, when they got married, when their spouse was born. It can often be the first time they’ve spoken about their ex-spouse for a long time.   

“Furthermore, if there are children under 18, the Family Law Act requires details of the child arrangements to be specified before a divorce is granted. This can be very difficult for some clients, particularly when there are safety concerns. 

“Given that we regularly assist victim survivors of family violence through the clinic, a trauma informed approach is important, as are the financial considerations,” Sophie adds.  

Navigating associated costs

Accessing a family lawyer to support this process in Victoria is estimated to cost between $350 and $700 an hour, on top of the $350 government processing fee with a healthcare care card or $1000 without.  

When people are separating it’s when their finances are most vulnerable. When family violence is involved, there’s often financial violence with women being cut off from assets, bearing the cost of childcare and school, all without communication with their ex-spouse.

Sophie Jest, FLS Senior Lawyer

“Our clients will tell us that they have been saving up for months to afford the government processing fee, let alone the cost of obtaining legal advice or assistance with the application” Sophie says. “You add in cost-of-living challenges and the ability to access a private lawyer to support this process is simply unobtainable.”  

Sophie looks forward to proactively working with Q+Law and reaching different queer and trans spaces to make sure the clinic is inclusive of LGBTIQA+SB clients. She is also reaching out to community service groups to ensure that it can link in with culturally diverse clients from a trusted referral pathway. 

“This is about having our volunteers be able to represent the diversity of our client base, and be able to say to a client, I understand your experience and what’s being felt. That’s incredibly powerful and something I hope we can build the Divorce Clinic to offer in the months ahead.” 

The Family Law and Family Violence team have also made recommendations to the Australian Government, suggesting reforms to the divorce process to make it easier and more accessible, particularly in circumstances of family violence.  

The Divorce Clinic runs monthly from 10.00am on a Tuesday from the Fitzroy Town Hall for people across the City of Yarra and will soon commence monthly from 10.00am on a Thursday from FLS’s Reservoir office for people in the City of Darebin.  

To refer a client or to reach out for support yourself, please email at divorceclinic@fls.org.au

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