Attorney-General Robert McClelland today announced a series of (potential) changes to the family law system in Australia. These changes are aimed at tackling domestic violence and child abuse in Australia and altering the way the courts operate in terms of these issues. In the introduction to his speech he stated:
“I believe that at the moment there are still too many families that slip through the safety net. Complex problems rarely have simple solutions and they can’t be overcome by taking action in isolation. To address violence we need to identify holes in the system, and collaborate to tighten the safety net. It’s not enough to look for holes in the law, or in court processes or in the delivery of services, or any of these things on their own. Our safety net must provide the tightest protection possible for families negotiating the family law system.”
This is obviously in large part politician speak (he says ‘safety net’ three different times, somewhat unnecessarily) but I feel that his heart is in the right place and that revamping or strengthening the way the system works is a good thing. I do, however, have some reservations, in particular that the focus of this speech and these changes seems to be to the system after the fact – so after when the abuse occus rather than working on prevention in the first place.
The four main announcements he made are outlined in bold.
• A training package for family law system professionals and the development of minimum screening guidelines;
Training and information for ‘professionals’ within the system is a really amazing thing and I’m glad they are prioritising this. A lot of the problems that victims and survivors of violence have with legal system professionals (including the police) is that they are untrained and unaware of the impacts and complications involved in violence and abuse. This often results in behaviour/advice that can be further traumatising or unhelpful.
I am a little concerned that these training packages will be of a bureaucratic nature. The best way to inform people about the requirements and experiences of abuse survivors is to have survivors communicate about what they need or needed and the best ways to proceed. Nonetheless, it does seem that they are taking cues from the National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children’s April report ‘Time for Action’ which came from a lot of community and survivor consultation.
The ‘minimum screening guidelines’ mentioned aren’t really elaborated on but I think McClelland’s talking about mandatory reporting levels and altering what he terms ‘inefficient jurisdictional boundaries’
• A pilot of legally assisted mediation for families experiencing violence;
I think this is an interesting one. The Howard government pretty much banished lawyers from some aspects of family law disputes, preferring separating couples to use counselors for mediation. McClelland has commissioned this pilot project to instead fund lawyers for mediation in cases where violence is alleged. He states:
“In assisting families to exercise choice in resolving their separation disputes, I am funding a pilot program to provide legal representation in mediation sessions to families who have experienced violence or are at risk of it.”
This could be positive. I don’t think that someone should have no legal support or recourse when the partner they are separating from has been violent towards them or their children. However allowing lawyers to the table could bring about two negative possibilities. One that bullying abusive lawyers will be in the room and it will be about forcing one party into submission. Secondly that if one partner is in a more stable financial position they will be able to hire a more experienced lawyer who can work for more favourable outcomes for their client – regardless of if they’ve been violent.
• A review of the family court practice and procedure, lead by Professor Richard Chisholm, a former Family Court judge;
This review seems to be about expanding the current model for dealing with children who have been abused or in abusive situations. Currently in use is the Magellan case management model – introduced in 1998. It brings together the family courts, police and child protection agencies to ensure the Court has all the information it needs to make decisions “in the best interest of the child” but is incredibly flawed. The current laws require the Family Court to presume the “best interests of a child” are served by a meaningful relationship with both parents after divorce, regardless of if one parent has been abusive. It forces parents into ongoing relationships with violent ex-partners and requires them to regularly hand over their children to the care of said ex-partner.
Chisholm is going to be consulting experts and examining whether the practices and procedures in the family courts encourage appropriate disclosures of family violence, and whether appropriate support is provided within the family court system for families who have experienced or are at risk of violence.
• An enquiry by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) to identify gaps in the law and reinforce the previously mentioned ‘safety net’.
This inquiry will look at two important issues raised in the National Council’s report:
1. It will examine the interaction of State and Territory laws relating to family violence and child protection with Commonwealth family laws and criminal laws to determine whether changes are required to better protect women and children; and
2. It will examine the impact of the inconsistent interpretation or application of laws in cases of sexual assault occurring in the context of family violence, on the victims of violence.
I can do nothing but applaud the fact that this enquiry is happening and cross my fingers that the outcomes will be positive for victims and survivors of violence, abuse and assault.
Overall I find the announcements to be on the positive side, even if only because action is being taken and family violence is being taken seriously. Some of the measures that will be introduced do raise questions but I don’t feel that any are to be damned but rather watched closely to see what the results are. I do wish that this was all less about enquiries and reviews and about real and substantial action being taken. However if the ‘reviews’ and ‘enquiries’ involve talking to communities, affected groups and survivors then I think extended evaluation is probably a better thing that rushed but ineffective action.
Finally, one other thing of interest McClelland mentioned is the following:
“Measures to address family violence will assist the Government’s effort to halve homelessness by 2020, as we now know that family violence is the principle cause of homelessness among young women with children.”
This statement displays, to me, an understanding of the wide and varied effect that domestic violence has on families, individuals, women and children, something of a relief after the draconian attitude of the previous government.