Women leaving abusive relationships will be able to access their superannuation early, as part of a number of reforms to improve their financial security.
But the measures have come under criticism from unions and employee advocates, who believe the government should be funding domestic violence services, instead of making victims use their retirement savings.
1.6 million women are victims of domestic violence
According to government statistics, around 17 percent of Australian women have experienced family or domestic violence from a current or former partner since the age of 15 – that is 1.6 million women.
The Minister for Women, Kelly O’Dwyer, said early access to superannuation would give those women an added source of income as they re-establish themselves after leaving an abusive relationship.
“While superannuation should ideally be preserved until retirement, there are certain immediate and extreme circumstances where the benefits today outweigh the benefits of maintaining those savings until retirement,” Ms O’Dwyer told Fairfax Media.
“The government considers that family and domestic violence is one of these special circumstances.”
Reforms ‘life changing’
Helen Matthews from the Women’s Legal Service Victoria described the reform as “life changing”.
“Many women escaping from family violence are living with limited assets and serious debt,” she said.
“For them, superannuation is often the only part of the property pool.
“The current mandatory disclosure of superannuation assets mechanism is broken for women who are leaving abusive relationships.”
According to Fairfax, a study conducted by the service found women struggled to support themselves while they waited for the court system to make decisions about property settlements.
Although the law recognises super as an asset, it can be difficult for one partner to locate their partner’s funds – especially without legal assistance.
To address this problem, the government plans to introduce a new electronic information sharing system between the Australian Tax Office and the Family Law Courts so superannuation assets can be identified quickly and accurately.
Funds to help make court process easier
Included in the reforms is $5.9 million to be spent on a two-year trial of ways courts can more speedily resolve family law property cases for families.
There will also be $50.4 million for mediation services to try to keep families from using the courts to resolve property disputes.
This includes $10.3 million for legal aid services to run lawyer-assisted mediation to help women to reach more equitable property settlements.
Government needs to do more
Industrial advocate Miles Heffernan welcomed the changes, but believes the government needs to do more.
“Anything to help victims of domestic violence is a good thing, but let’s not get caught up in the government spin,” he said.
“What Ms O’Dwyer is effectively asking domestic violence victims to do by giving them early access to their super is to spend their own retirement savings to help them at a time of crisis – how on earth are they going to support themselves when they get older?
“The government should be stumping up and putting more money into domestic violence crisis services and support organisations, instead of asking victims to fund it themselves.”
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