Women’s Safety front and centre for Southern Cross Uni changemaker graduate

Published 11 May 2021
Hayley Foster

As a child of the women’s refuge movement, Hayley Foster knew from a young age she’d follow in her mother’s footsteps and pursue her own passion for justice, wellbeing, and social change advocacy.

Her mother Pamela (Ela) Foster was the executive officer of the NSW peak body for women’s refuges at the time, and Hayley distinctly remembers attending a protest as a teenager with her mother and grandmother to stop the defunding of a state-wide women’s domestic violence legal centre. 

Decades later, while managing the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre, Hayley completed her Bachelor of Laws at Southern Cross University and went on to become CEO of Women's Safety NSW.

“Violence against women is at epidemic levels right throughout our communities, with one in four women experiencing some form of violence over their lifetime and intimate partner violence being the leading preventable driver of death, disability and illness in women aged between 15 to 44 years of age,” said Hayley.

“The reason it continues to perpetuate at such high levels is that governments have not prioritised targeted measures to both address the violence and abuse and prevent it from occurring in the first place. This is, however, beginning to change as the community becomes more aware and focussed on the issue.”

Hayley was appointed CEO of Women’s Safety NSW in 2018 and has more than 15 years’ experience in the community and justice sectors in the areas of domestic and family violence policy, practice and law reform. She says a key focus of her present work is to advocate alongside survivor-advocates and other leaders in the field for the criminalisation of coercive control which is at the core of domestic abuse, and often its most dangerous and damaging element, and for policing and court reforms to support effective implementation of these changes.

“As we’ve seen with the tragic Hannah Clarke and Kelly Wilkinson cases, coercive control is not just damaging, it’s extremely dangerous. We must update our laws to reflect the lived realities of victim-survivors of domestic abuse and send a clear signal that this harmful conduct will no longer be tolerated,” she said.

“Women’s Safety NSW works closely with government but is also very transparent, taking the conversation into the public forum to help increase community-wide understanding and to encourage community members to express their concerns to government – for instance we wanted to know how the community felt about the increased bailing of domestic violence offenders during COVID, and how they felt about victims of domestic violence being directly cross-examined by their abusers in court – a lot of people did not know this was happening until our organisation shone a light on it.

“At the state level, our most significant achievements in 2020 included changes to domestic violence laws and court procedures to ensure victim-survivors can give evidence safely either in a closed court or via audio-visual link and to protect them from direct cross-examination by their unrepresented abuser from September this year. We also advocated for changes to domestic violence laws to recognise animal abuse within relationships as a form of intimidation, and to automatically protect animals as part of an apprehended violence order.

“At the federal level, we successfully advocated for enhanced funding and reforms to support frontline domestic and family violence agencies deal with the shadow pandemic of escalating violence against women during the COVID crisis, and for the establishment of an urgent national online list in the Federal Circuit Court to streamline family law matters involving family violence where risk has heightened due to COVID. This “COVID List” has been a huge success, particularly for families impacted by domestic violence in regional, rural and remote areas where timely access to a family law registry can be limited. Women’s Safety NSW and women’s legal services across the country continue to consult with the Chief Justice regarding further expansion and extension of this list, post-COVID.

“I find my job extremely fulfilling, working with innovative experts across many sectors, our amazing member organisations on the frontline who support over 50,000 women escaping violence each year, and with victim-survivors of violence themselves. I also relish in the opportunity to mentor a high-performing team of socio-legal student researchers who will take the philosophy and experience of Women’s Safety NSW into their careers where they themselves will one day become leaders in their chosen fields,” she said.

“The only way we get governments to prioritise these critical issues with real traction is by elevating the voices of a diverse range of people with lived experience and those advocating alongside them.”

When Hayley graduated with her Bachelor of Laws (LLB) (Hons) from Southern Cross University in 2019 she was awarded the University Medal for being the highest academic performer in any Honours degree. Just days later she met with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office to advocate for improvements to the family law system.

“The knowledge and skills I have gained in my law degree have been instrumental in ensuring my effectiveness in the role as CEO of Women’s Safety NSW. I chose Southern Cross University because of the calibre of law degree and teaching staff,” said Hayley, whose Honours thesis focused on judicial discretion in family law matters in the context of domestic and family violence.

“I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to be a lawyer, but I knew I wanted to be effective in advocating for social justice, and the rights of women and girls in particular, whether through legislative reform or case law, so this law degree with its emphasis on social justice was the perfect fit.

“Knowing the law and how it operates in practice means I am able to ask the right questions of my members and better engage with key stakeholders right throughout the civil, family and criminal justice systems and with elected parliamentary representatives and departmental staff. I would not be in the position I am today, driving these changes, without my law degree from Southern Cross University.”

Media contact: Media and Content content@scu.edu.au