Parliamentary inquiry to examine the role of banks in preventing financial abuse

Parliamentary inquiry to examine the role of banks in preventing financial abuse
  • PublishedApril 5, 2024

A new federal inquiry is set to shine a light on financial abuse in Australia, which is considered a more hidden form of family and domestic violence.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services will examine the issue, looking into the effectiveness of existing laws and the role that banks can play in identifying and preventing the problem.

Committee chair Senator Deborah O’Neill told the ABC the inquiry would have an “educative” role in raising awareness with the general public, and also recommend reforms.

“This inquiry is determined to get to the bottom of the prevalence and the impact of this financial abuse, and find out what the financial institutions are doing to identify the behaviour, and to record and report any abuse,” she said.

Economic abuse includes actions aimed at controlling or sabotaging access to economic resources, resulting in emotional harm or fear.

It can include interfering with bank accounts, accumulating debt on shared accounts or delaying property and child support payments post-relationship.

Banks play a role to help, says victim

Melbourne mother Lily said financial control by her former partner began early in their relationship.

“Within a couple of days of moving in with him, he demanded that I put my wage into a joint account that he had control of,” she said.

“I didn’t feel comfortable with what he was asking. But I obliged, trusting that he had good intentions. And so from that moment onwards, everything I spent was controlled.”

A woman doing paperwork.
Troy didn’t know how to do tax returns and was caught out when the ATO automated some of its systems.(ABC: Eliza Borrello)

Once the couple separated, that financial abuse only worsened.

The healthcare worker said her perpetrator used the family court system to continue to abuse, and that he stopped paying the mortgage on their family home and investment property.

“The bank started sending me letters of demand and that was really stressful. And they started phoning me, every day a different bank staff member. And I would explain and re-explain what he was doing.”

She and her ex-partner agreed to enter into a formal financial hardship process with their bank.

“At some point, he obviously realised, hang on a minute, that means she’s not getting harassed. So he on his own, pulled out of the financial hardship arrangement.”

Lily believes her bank could have done more to help — if they had taken more care in recognising her distress, or raised a red flag when her ex-partner withdrew from the financial hardship arrangement.

She said the economic abuse she suffered would have a lasting impact on her life, and on her four children.

“I’m still in survival mode. I have not recovered and I probably never [will].

“When you’re so financially destroyed every which way … you’ve just got to crawl your way back.”

Advocates have welcomed the inquiry, saying it’s vital to implement protective measures to protect victim-survivors.

Rebecca Glenn, CEO of the Centre for Women’s Economic Safety, said existing mechanisms were allowing perpetrators to weaponise financial products.

A woman smiling at the camera.
Rebecca Glenn from the Centre for Women’s Economic Safety.(Supplied)

“Too many women are being propelled into poverty because of unhelpful systems, because of poor product design, and these things are actually enabling abusers to deliberately misuse products to the detriment of their partner or family member.”

She said banks should refer financial abuse to law enforcement authorities, as they do with scams and fraud.

“What we see is many financial products and instruments implicated in that abuse, banking products, insurance products, manipulation of the tax system,” Ms Glenn said.

“So what’s important is this inquiry actually starts to look into that at a systemic level and say, ‘Are there regulations and laws that can change to provide better protection for victim-survivors?’

“It could be that there are changes within financial institutions themselves, their own risk management thresholds that could be looked at … there’s going to be a role for banks to play in terms of referring to law enforcement as well.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Australian Banking Association said action was already being taken to stamp out financial abuse, including training staff to spot red flags and referring customers to specialised support.

Inquiry to look into elder abuse

The inquiry will not only look at financial abuse in partner relationships but also economic abuse involving the elderly.

Beverley Baker, president of the National Older Women’s Network, has welcomed the development of the Senate inquiry.

“It’s extremely needed. It’s certainly part of the whole recognition of coercive control, as being something that is so destructive and damaging.”

She said “inheritance impatience” affecting older Australians was a growing phenomenon.

“We see more and more recent incidents of family members trying to get their hands on the money.

“Once they get their hands on the money or on the property, selling it out from underneath a woman and putting her on the street.”

Ms Baker said family and intergenerational wealth transfer is complex, and “inheritance impatience” can drive financial abuse, leading to potential exploitation and theft.

Senator O’Neill said the inquiry had been “too long in the making”, as the issue grew in the Australian community.

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show 16 per cent of women and 8 per cent of men have experienced economic abuse in partner relationships.

“I think that what we need to do is actually be a lot clearer about what financial abuse looks like in 2024 and going forward, than what it might have looked like in the past,” Senator O’Neill said.

“We want to really figure out if the existing legislation and the regulatory arrangements are fit for purpose.”

She pointed to consumer protection laws, the privacy act, and insurance legislation as areas that may be examined by the committee.

The parliamentary committee is calling for public submissions to the inquiry, including from victim-survivors with lived experience, frontline organisations and banks.

Submissions are due to close in mid-June.


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