How NSW Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) facilitates financial abuse
4th Jun 2020
Aside from the family home, a car is typically the main asset for many married and de facto couples. For many parents it is an indispensable tool for transporting children and their paraphernalia. But for many women and children fleeing domestic violence, the car is also the only means that women can use to leave with some possessions in tow, and sadly, in the worst-case scenario, it may also act as a temporary second home.
In NSW, since December 2008, it has not been possible to register a motor vehicle in joint names. It would seem that this change in policy was made to streamline the issuing and enforcement of fines under the NSW road rules. Regrettably, the government appears not to have considered the impact this change would have on the safety of women and children affected by domestic violence in NSW – ill-thought-out bureaucratic convenience prevailed. Notably, other states and territories continue to allow joint registration, while some provide for the nomination of a primary operator to receive infringement notices: see for example, Tasmania, WA and the NT.
Of course, many women who live with domestic violence struggle to ever have a car registered in their name, even if they have paid for it.
Vehicle registration papers constitute proof of ownership in NSW when selling a car. A REVS check will tell you whether the car you intend to buy is on the Register of Encumbered Vehicles or has money owing from a previous owner. What it won’t generally tell you is whether the vehicle forms part of a joint matrimonial or de facto asset pool or ensure that a female domestic partner’s interest is protected, regardless of who bought it. Selling the car used by a female partner (but registered in the male partner’s name) is a common means of perpetrating financial abuse. A REVS check can’t alert buyers if a man is selling the car to deprive his female partner and children of their only means of escape, or even if he is just selling it to fund his gambling debts.
Moreover, many police still don’t understand that proof of vehicle registration does not override domestic violence and family laws. This is consistent with the general reluctance to prioritise women and children’s safety and wellbeing over property ownership, as manifest in the unwillingness to seek orders excluding violent men from homes to which they have legal title.
To illustrate, in one case, police were called in response to a verbal altercation between a husband and wife where the husband was attempting to remove the car that the wife relied on to transport their young child. The husband was a man of considerable means with other vehicles and residences at his disposal. The wife was a full-time mother with no independent income and no assets registered in her name. She already had apprehended domestic violence orders in place for her protection against the husband following previous violence. However, the police officer who attended the incident failed to understand that the removal of the car was an act of harassment in breach of the existing orders against the husband. Instead, the police officer asked who owned the car. Since the car was registered in the husband’s name, the police officer relied on his account of events and identified the wife as the perpetrator of domestic violence and applied for orders to protect the husband. There was no physical violence alleged, just her howls of protest which the husband claimed was evidence of her mental illness, and which he claimed justified orders for his protection.
If family law proceedings had been in progress at the time, the wife could have instructed her lawyers to apply for an interim injunction to stop the husband taking and disposing of the asset (the car) until the property division was finalised. However, commencing family law proceedings is costly, and many women in relationships characterised by domestic violence and financial abuse don’t have access to funds to pay a private solicitor up front and may also not be eligible for legal aid if they have employment or if the joint matrimonial asset pool is sizeable, despite the fact they can’t actually access it. Family law proceedings can take years to finalise and often the lives of women and children have been destroyed long before final orders are made.
The RMS is not alone in implementing ill-thought-out policies in this area. Many other institutions insist on sending notices out to only one email address, even when accounts are registered in two names (for example, invoices from utility providers and insurers, and dividend advices from share registries).
Taking and selling the car used by a female partner is just one of many strategies a male partner may use to perpetrate financial abuse and exercise control in a domestic violence situation. In order to provide the necessary protection for women in these situations and ensure two signatures are required for the sale of a jointly owned car, it is essential that the NSW government reinstate the option of registering motor vehicles in joint names, or at very least enable a second interest in a vehicle to be noted. All organisations should be set up to send notices to two email addresses where there is a joint account and have published family violence policies in place that their staff are aware of and implement.
Anna Kerr is the founder and principal of the Feminist Legal Clinic, Sydney, which works to advance the cause of feminism and champion the human rights of women and girls by providing legal support to feminist organisations, groups and services and the women who access them. Andrea Verteouris is a PLT student at the Feminist Legal Clinic.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).