Tucked into the historical facade of a Launceston CBD street there is a small office with a locked door.
The door remains perennially locked, only opened when an expected guest stands in front of it and gestures to the front desk.
Such is the nature of the service provided by the office they need to take extra security precautions to ensure themselves, and their clients, remain safe.
Women's Legal Service Tasmania has operated since 1996 and has helped countless women in Tasmania navigate the complex legal system, and break free from the oppressive shackles of family violence.
With offices in Hobart, Launceston and Burnie, the service has the ability to attend to the far reaches of the state and assists somewhere in the vicinity of 2000 Tasmanian women every year.
Tucked away at the back of the office building is the small and understated board room.
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Though the organisation adopts the banner of "legal service", its role extends far beyond the bounds of providing legal advice, well into the realm of empathy,
The Wonder Women of WLST
Elise Whitmore is the principal solicitor for WLST.
She's worked in the law and family violence sector for about 10 years but only recently brought her expertise to the service.
She regularly sits in on client meetings to provide legal advice, and to make a call as to the best way her team, and the woman they are supporting can proceed - legally and emotionally.
Ms Whitmore's role is comprehensive. Naturally, as the principal solicitor, she has a caseload and goes to court but due to the nature of WLST, her role is multifaceted.
"I kind of have two roles. As the principal solicitor, I have a caseload, I see clients, I go to court, I do applications and I'll go and do client appointments. But that's, that's one part of my role," Ms Whitmore said.
"The other part of my role as principal is to manage the legal team."
WLST's legal team consists of four lawyers, two in Launceston and two in Burnie. Managing that team involves assessing the applications they have made and discussing their legal strategy.
It also involves assessing whether a prospective client is eligible for the service.
As a not-for-profit charity existing on government funding and other grants, the service has learnt to be streamlined and "tight" on eligibility criteria.
Also due to the nature of being a not-for-profit charity, the service has issues of capacity.
"We can't even take on everyone that meets those requirements, unfortunately, as much as we would love," Ms Whitmore said.
They are difficult decisions [to make]. They're most difficult when we are at capacity and we're turning everyone away, regardless of whether they meet the eligibility requirements or not.Elise Whitmore
"You can tell that woman is not going to get services from anyone else and you have a blanket 'no' because we just do not have the resources to open another case."
Ms Whitmore's desk is tucked efficiently into the corner of the board room.
On her desk is a caricature of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the famous American Supreme Court Justice who died late last year and was celebrated for her contributions to furthering the plight of women through legislation.
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Though Ms Whitmore's career might not be as celebrated as Ginsburg's, the underlying principle of her legacy may one day be similar and her similar passion for the improvement of women's social standing is obvious.
As is the evolving nature of how family violence perpetuates and consequently is understood in court and legislation, Ms Whitmore's strategies regularly challenge the judiciary on what family violence looks like.
"Our lawyers get in trouble from the bench because they're trying to raise systems abuse issues. They're doing something that's against the rules or is frowned upon by the judiciary," she said.
"The courtroom is a really interesting dynamic because of our duties to the court. It has been pushed before though.
"There was definitely some pushback from the bench for how we approached something because it was talking about an incident before the court.
"[We are] trying to bring in holistically the whole set of circumstances of why a client ended up there in the first place. The patterns of coercive control and sexual abuse and all these things that have happened to her to have led to this particular incident."
[We are] trying to bring in holistically the whole set of circumstances of why a client ended up there in the first place. The patterns of coercive control and sexual abuse and all these things that have happened to her to have led to this particular incident.Elise Whitmore
Though the bench may frown upon the strategy implemented by Ms Whitmore and her team in some instances, the necessity of undoing generations of systemically oppressive legislation is not lost on WLST.
"You have to be quite strategic," Ms Whitmore said.
"We do pick those cases up, especially where a woman has been charged with a criminal offence for assault against her partner ...
"But if you take a step back and look at the situation as a whole ... then we will take cases like that on because a point needs to be made that this has been one incident in a situation that isn't defined by incidents, it's been defined by cycles of violence and abuse."
Up the hall from Ms Whitmore is Hannah Knowles.
Ms Knowles has been with the service for two years and has found her footing as a financial counsellor.
The importance of financial counsellors in family violence instances has become more and more apparent as example after example reveals financial control is evident in cases of family violence. The currency of that discussion means Ms Knowles' position is only new within the service.
About 50 per cent of the women that come through the service are in need of financial counselling because they have been coerced into taking on bad debts, spending their own money on their partner, committing fraud and being in debt to Centrelink, and numerous other reasons.
She typically sees around two clients every day, and then gets to trying to secure financial freedom for them so that they can flourish in their life after family violence. That means offering them the support they need, but empowering them to make their own decisions.
"It's really advocating on the client's behalf. They maybe haven't been able to do that for themselves, but it's also empowering them to be able to make the small changes themselves," Ms Knowles said.
I can't tell them what to do. I provide them the options and they choose and I support them through that.Hannah Knowles
Ms Knowles is deliberately particular in her language and it is clear that along with her knowledge of the financial systems clients come up against, she essentially has the empathy and touch of a counsellor.
That crossover of legal nous and empathy is evident in every employee at WLST.
While being a "legal service", WLST is an ally to women who may never have been supported in their life. In many cases the women they see may not have even known the extent of the violence inflicted upon them until they discuss it with the service.
The role of the service extends far beyond legal advice.
A tiny, windowless office backing onto the board room is occupied by Yvette Cehtel, the chief executive of WLST.
Ms Cehtel finished law school in 1994 and assumed a position on the board of WLST shortly thereafter. Since, her resume has become impressive and her experience extensive.
She knows the system inside and out and her expert knowledge is invaluable to the service. She even helped with the process that saw Tasmania's 2004 Family Violence act gain royal assent.
As the figurehead of the organisation, she is tasked with explaining the importance of WLST to organisations that may be able to support them financially or can come on board in some kind of partnership.
Her daily calendar is jam-packed with these meetings including meeting with Attorney-General Elise Archer, Bass Liberal MHR Bridget Archer, working out how WLST and other family violence organisations can work together and continually pitching as to why WLST needs all the help it can get
Last week Ms Cehtel was pleading to the state government to offer more financial support to WLST to maintain its operations in Launceston.
In her role, she balances the books, so she knows that the current commitment they receive means she cannot renew contracts.
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"We've got a team of 23 people and we run off a lot less than $2 million," she said.
"And we've got three sites we pay rent at."
Ms Cehtel joined the legal service in April 2019. Despite routinely travelling to Hobart, and other sections of the state, the service is not technically funded for her to travel statewide.
"For the first year I funded [that travel] myself," she said.
"I paid for all my accommodation. There's no money in our budget for that."
I paid for all my accommodation. There's no money in our budget for that.Yvette Cehtel
Dipping into her own pockets for the good of women around the state may be a hallmark of Ms Cehtel, but both Ms Whitmore and Ms Knowles have to draw on their own empathy pools to keep their heasd above water in the field in which they operate.
Ms Whitmore said she has naturally become hardened by her work, but admits to restless nights spent thinking about a client and what might happen to them if their case does not go to plan.
Ms Knowles is still developing that calculated hardness that allows empathy to personify a relationship with a client, but hardness to permeate a role in which these women are fighting against a system that is stacked against them.
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Despite the fact futility may sometimes creep into their mentality as they push back against the bench, fight for financial freedom, or repeat themselves in countless different ways that their service is entirely vital, they always come back to two main points that keeps them going.
One, a lot of work has been done, but there is still a long way to go to achieve equal justice for women. Two, their voice is important.
"It's about all the women that depend on us to deliver a service and to have broader cultural conversations to try to change the world," Ms Cehtel said.
It might be big picture thinking but if we don't think we can change that then there's no point really.Yvette Cehtel
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