Calls to make it easier for family violence survivors to create a new identity

Some survivors of domestic violence say they need to change their name to start a new life in safety.

A new report says victims of family violence on temporary migrant visas in Australia need more help.

File photo Source: AAP

There are calls to make it easier for domestic violence survivors to change their names to reduce the risk of being tracked down by ex-partners. 

Victoria's Women’s Legal Service says greater assistance is needed for women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and more coordination between different states involved. 

“I think certain steps can be taken where we prioritise safety and we recognise the actual danger that separated women can face from violence from their partners," the service’s legal and policy director Helen Matthews said.

Ms Matthews said migrants who have tried to change their names have faced extra hurdles due to language barriers, while others face financial difficulties.  

She cited a case where a client couldn’t afford the cost of the name change and wasn’t able to pay the fees based on her Newstart allowance.

“The cost involved in people having to get documents translated can be really prohibitive and the inconsistent approach that people might experience when they are applying for consideration by bureaucracies would be greatly assisted if there were strong guidelines as to how to respond when family violence is alleged.”

Ms Matthews said often the continued use of a former partner's name causes distress. 

"They just need to end that psychological connection with the other person," she said. 

While people who were married in Australia don't need to formally apply to stop using their spouse's name and revert back to their maiden name, people who want to change their name to something else or were married overseas need to go through the formal process. 

'Start a new life in safety'

Federal court data shows there were at least 10 name change requests at its court and the Federal Circuit Court in the past nine years. 

In some of those cases, the applicant cited psychological distress as a reason for requiring a name change.

Most of those families had a name change approved by the court because it was in the best interests of a child. 

Name change cases come before the Family Court or Federal Circuit Court if a parent has decided to make that application directly. 

A Victorian woman who wanted her and her child to change names has spoken out about the difficulties she faced when applying for changes.

Ellie* said she experienced severe domestic violence and six years ago she started the name change process.  

"My barrister strongly suggested to move to another state and change my and my child's names to start a new life in safety," she told SBS News. 

But she faced complications in not having the father’s consent for her child's new name. 

"The Queensland register office kept rejecting my requests saying it needs both parents," she said. 

Ellie said her child has one name at school on reports but on legal documents such as passports she has to use her old name.

"It is a mess," she said. 

Ellie said her ex-partner has now moved overseas and she feels safer after moving to a new city.

However, she hopes name change procedures and court order issues could be made easier for future applicants or survivors of family violence.

"I constantly have to use two names," she said.

"As I run a small business and have an online and social media presence, changing my legal name only caused complications," she said. 

The Women’s Legal Service Victoria is aware of one case where the court allowed an application to proceed without the father knowing.

“You’ve got to satisfy the court it’s in the best interests of the children and it is necessary for the mother that this name change takes place,” Ms Matthews said.

Ms Matthews said the woman had debts which delayed the process as she had to undergo a credit check before her request could be processed. 

In Victoria, the cost quoted on Births, Deaths and Marriages website was about $110 plus postage. 

Challenges facing migrant women

Migrants who have escaped family violence often face extra fees for documents to be translated. 

One woman had to obtain a copy of her divorce certificate from her country of origin.

“She actually had to provide for a flexible support package which is available to women fleeing family violence in Victoria to actually get the money to pay the fees for the certification of those documents,” Ms Matthews said.

In this case, the applicant was expected to prove that the name change was needed.

“She had to have a credit check or satisfy the name changing authority, Births, Deaths and Marriages, that she didn’t have any debt, [but] as often happens to women fleeing family violence, she did have debts,” Ms Matthews said.

The Women's Legal service said Births, Deaths and Marriages requested letters from individual creditors confirming they knew about her plans to change names so it didn't appear that the woman was avoiding debt. 

“She also didn’t have English as her first language and had to cope with the bureaucracy of reverting back to her original name,” Ms Matthews said.

A photo of a migrant woman who has experienced domestic violence from a photographic exhibition in Hobart and Melbourne.
Source: Supplied

Under Victorian rules, If a person was married overseas and wanted to revert to their maiden name, they would need to change it through Births, Deaths and Marriages. 

In a statement, the Justice Department said BDM in Victoria has placed a limit of one name change in a 12-month time frame and three changes allowed over a lifetime.

But it added that the registrar has discretion when extra changes were requested.

The department said people in financial difficulty facing family violence can apply for fees to be waived. 

The Federal Court stated online that it has support resources available for migrants. 

*Names have been changed

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit In an emergency, call 000. 

Published 13 March 2020 at 11:27am, updated 13 March 2020 at 11:30am
By Stephanie Corsetti