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Bringing Evidence to Action in the fight against domestic violence


Jessica Nelson
13 September 2019

Days after she receives a prestigious medal at her Southern Cross University graduation ceremony, Hayley Foster will meet with the Prime Minister to advocate for women in the family law system.

Hayley is the CEO of Women's Safety NSW, the state’s peak body for specialist services advocating for women’s safety in the context of domestic and family violence.

Today she has been awarded the University Medal for being the highest academic performer in any Honours degree, when she graduated with a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) at Southern Cross University Lismore campus in north east NSW.

Hayley’s Honours thesis focused on the application of judicial discretion in family law matters in the context of domestic and family violence.

With more than 15 years’ experience in the community and justice sectors in the areas of domestic and family violence policy, practice and law reform, Hayley says her fulltime labour of love was first learned from her mother’s lifelong work advocating for women.

“Something that always stayed in my mind was a protest I participated in as part of the women’s refuge movement with both my mother and my grandmother to stop the defunding of a state-wide women’s domestic violence legal centre. It was my grandmother’s first ever protest and her 75th birthday,” Hayley said.

“I remember the women from Koori Support sang her happy birthday in Hyde Park. It was a defining moment where I came to understand the power of women coming together in all our diversity to advocate for justice for women and children experiencing domestic and family violence.”


Where law and justice met for Hayley

Hayley grew up as a child of the women’s refuge movement, her mother Pamela (Ela) Foster was the executive officer of the state-wide peak body at the time. It didn’t take long for Hayley to follow in her mother’s footsteps completing work experience with the National Women’s Emergency Services Network (WESNET) at age 15.

After completing bachelors in business, economics and finance and post graduate studies in political economics in Sydney, Hayley and her partner moved to the Northern Rivers to start a family and live near her mother. She enrolled to study through the School of Law and Justice at Southern Cross University.

“Through working and becoming a board member at the community legal centre I learned about the ethos and philosophy of Southern Cross University’s law school. I looked into the calibre of the course and the teaching staff and discovered the strong focus on justice which was critical to my decision to enrol,” she said.

“I wasn’t even sure 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, so this law degree with its emphasis on social justice was the perfect fit.”

During her time in the Northern Rivers Hayley also worked in domestic violence policy in health, family law pathways, advocacy for Aboriginal women and community, research projects, violence prevention and response.

For her placement and practice Hayley secured an opportunity at a private feminist law firm. After working on extensive affidavits and research for cases involving domestic violence and sexual abuse of children, Hayley was struck by findings that placed women and children in unsafe situations.

“It became apparent this work wasn’t going to suit me. There was no way I could work in the system as it currently stands and while it was good experience for me to have, it was inevitable I was going to ask questions, push boundaries and work towards changing the system,” she said.

Now Sydney-based with her partner and two children, Hayley’s role as CEO of Women's Safety NSW uses a grassroots approach, with policy and advocacy advice from more than 400 members across NSW drawn from women’s specialist services supporting and advocating for more than 48,000 women and 42,000 accompanying children each year.

Hayley’s team is working on sexual consent reforms in NSW and the way the courts use information and non-disclosure orders to ensure domestic and family violence survivors are protected but not silenced, and improving court processes through increased specialisation in domestic violence cases.


Taking the fight to Canberra

In her meeting with PM Scott Morrison’s office in Canberra next week, Hayley will advocate on the review of the family law system. This will involve sharing the stories of regional women who have to navigate the family law system in the context of family violence without the same funded legal and support services which are available to people in metropolitan areas.

“While the Federal Government has heard our calls for increased investment in legal and social supports in the family law system in the context of family violence with the introduction of the Family Advocacy Support Service, there is so much more to be done,” she said.

“The evidence doesn’t line up with current policy settings. The recent Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Report shows domestic and family violence is more prevalent and severe in regional and remote areas and yet we have a so-called national scheme that is critical to supporting families through the family law system only being rolled out in the larger metropolitan family law registries.”

Hayley continues to have a strong focus on evidence-to-action in her work with ANROWS (Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety) and her engagement with research in her advocacy, representing NSW on the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA) Advisory Group and the ANROWS Practitioner Engagement Group.

She is presently working on publishing her Honours.