17 March 2022

It’s ‘important to try and take a step back’ to remain objective

This article was originally published by Lauren Croft for Lawyers Weekly (17 March 2022).

Best practice when dealing with particularly challenging or emotionally charged matters includes looking after yourself and taking a step back, according to these two partners.  

Alicia Toberty and Sharon Levy are both partners at Bartier Perry, working in the firm's family law and dispute resolution and advisory practices respectively. Speaking recently on The Boutique Lawyer Show, the pair discussed what abusive relationships can look like in 2022 – and how they look after their clients and themselves.

Ms Toberty first started in this space in 2008 and said that, legally speaking, what constitutes abuse in a relationship is “actually quite broad”.

“Not only does it encompass the acts of physical violence and also children witnessing those acts of physical violence, it also encompasses things like coercive control, and also children witnessing that as well. There are also the financial abuse type cases as well that we see where one party will be withholding family funds from the victim and obviously restrict the victim’s access to joint family funds. And also, the direct abuse cases where there are circumstances of direct abuse on a child of the relationship that is also encompassed under the act as a term of family violence,” she said.

“Recently, there has been a heavy influx of complaints regarding coercive control and emotional abuse. Also tied up in that we have complaints of love bombing, which is where the partner will be completely all over you with affection and with positive graces. And then next, just complete withdrawal of affection. And that is really the emotional types of abuse that we’re seeing as well. So, it is a bit of everything.

“You will occasionally get the really heavy sort of physical acts of horrific violence that obviously we would need to assess the risk and sort of quarantine the victim and the family from those sorts of things. But generally, it is the really less sort of drastic ones, the more subtle incidents of family violence.”

Ms Levy sees a number of similar cases across her practice – as well as through The Haven Nepean Women’s Shelter, which is a domestic violence shelter Ms Levy set up in Penrith that takes in women and children escaping domestic violence and homelessness.

“A lot of my clients from Bartier Perry are all very supportive financially of The Haven. But I see a lot of victims that Alicia sees professionally through that charity work. But then also some of my clients are victims of relationship debt, leasing disputes, and that kind of thing with their perpetrators.

“So, sometimes a victim of DV may sign a guarantee to guarantee a loan that their partner has taken out. Or taking a joint loan with their partner, the partner then refuses to pay, and they’re lumped with the debt. Often times, when they’ve signed these guarantees or the joint loans, the documents are just thrown in front of them. They don’t know what they’re signing. They don’t realise that they actually need to guarantee the debt in the event that the partner does not pay and then they become liable,” she explained.

“And look, that doesn’t only happen in violent situations. It can happen in family instances as well. But in those circumstances, the guarantor becomes liable to pay that debt. And if they haven’t been given the opportunity to obtain proper legal advice or something like that, then they really don’t know what they’ve gotten themselves in for.”

In terms of helping clients leave abusive relationships, Ms Toberty and Ms Levy both have different approaches that constitute best practice for them.

“My best practice, and certainly the recent things that I’m doing in the course of my practice, is if there is any inkling at all with any new client that they may be a victim of abuse or that something is going on in the background that they are not being completely honest about, I will sit down, and I will do the New South Wales government’s domestic violence safety assessment tool. And that is available online, and it is available for anyone to go on there and download. And every state has its own variation,” Ms Toberty said.

“And that is a risk assessment tool that I will sit down and do with the client first up off the bat. And then going through the indicators, if obviously one or more answers given is a yes, that is an indicator that the client is at threat. But if there [are] 12 or more yes answers, that means that they’re at serious threat. So, before we get into anything, I always do this risk assessment tool with them. And then obviously from then on figure out the certain things that we need to implement in order to get them out safely.”

Similarly, Ms Levy said looking for warning signs is particularly important – albeit a little complicated in the midst of lockdowns.

“During the pandemic, it certainly is a lot harder to ask those questions and have those safe conversations. For me, it’s all about, I guess, making sure they’re okay, but always making sure that they know that there are people they can talk to and people who can help, that there are phone numbers, Lifeline Australia or the domestic violence crisis line,” she explained.

“The most difficult time for someone to leave or the most dangerous time for someone is when they’re leaving. The most likely time that they’re going to get killed is when they try to leave. That is why they don’t just leave. Or it might just be that they don’t have anywhere to go. So, it’s being careful with our language, picking up the signs, the red flags, but always having those numbers on hand, ready to hand out for people to use whenever they need to.”

Additionally, dealing with these cases includes self-care as a form of best practice, too.

“For me, it’s about not taking on too much. I don’t have the skills as a counsellor to assist DV victims. I run The Haven as a business. I keep the doors open. I make sure my staff are supported. I’m not on the frontline witnessing what’s going on,” Ms Levy added.

“But it’s been amazing how many people, once they know that I’m involved with The Haven, how many people disclose DV to me. They were a victim themselves as a child, their mom, they witnessed it. So, for me, it’s really about making sure I’m insulated in terms of not taking on too much so that I can help them and stay objective as needed.”

Ms Toberty added that in terms of separating herself from these matters, “it’s definitely a challenge”.

“I don’t think we on the front line will ever master that challenge because it’s been drummed into us since the dawn of time that we are there to put the clients first and their needs and wants come first. And if you are sitting there with a victim who’s making disclosures to you, it can often be triggering,” she said.

“And it’s definitely hard to step back and actually try and separate yourself because you want to help them. You want to take on that therapist role. You want to ask them the questions. You want to tell them what to do. But if you start doing that, unfortunately, you may get too close to them. You may get too close to the matter. You may lose your objectivity. So, it’s really important to try and take a step back. Personally, I try to take a break every two hours. I’ll step away for 10 or 20 minutes just to zone out and have a debrief. I will go for a walk at lunchtime. Do all of that sort of stuff that really tries to just sort of step back for a moment and just focus on yourself.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes.