Thursday, 8 October 2020
Australia's Family Law System Joint Select Committee; Report
I would like to begin by thanking the chair, the member for Menzies, for his work and thanking the secretariat for managing what has been at times a very emotional inquiry. I also thank the many individuals and organisations who made submissions to the committee. They have often shared personal experiences of navigating the family law system that were no doubt traumatic for them to relive. These submissions have been valuable to the work of the committee. I want to thank the organisations that provide family law services for their input to the inquiry and to acknowledge the very difficult work that they undertake.
As a psychologist, I was a scientist practitioner. This meant that evidence based approaches guided my clinical practice. As a member of parliament, I have maintained that an evidence based approach to creating policy and legislation will create the best outcomes for our nation. The input of researchers in family law will provide a significant body of evidence to guide us in making recommendations.
My membership of this committee has been shaped by a unique experience, working with families going through separation and divorce. Relationships are often complex. No matter the reasons why an individual or couple choose to end a relationship, it's never easy. It impacts not only on the immediate family members but also the extended family network. There is a spectrum of experiences when a couple separates. Some may experience relief at having left a dysfunctional or abusive environment, while others may mourn the loss of the relationship.
When children are involved, their interests and wellbeing should be paramount. We cannot set out to improve the family law system unless we first take into consideration the rights, safety and experiences of children involved. The committee has heard from several submitters that have alleged that both mothers and fathers have sought additional time for their children solely for the reason of maximising their individual property settlement and influencing the amount of child support to be paid. My concern is always on how such actions affect the child, particularly their mental health, but also the mental health of both parents. Ideally, the best outcome would be two healthy parents engaging in cooperative, shared parenting and working together in the interests of their children during and after separating.
The safety and wellbeing of all family members must be a critical consideration when working to improve the family law system. Almost two in five women and one in three men who temporarily separated from a violent former partner experienced family violence during the separation. Family violence occurs when a person tries to control their partner or other family members in ways that intimidate or oppress them, including through coercive control as well as physical, emotional, sexual or financial abuse. During the hearings, a recurring theme presented itself: family violence and other controlling and abusive behaviours did not necessarily cease once a relationship ended. In some circumstances, the family law process increased the risk and extended family violence and abusive behaviour after separation. As we develop the final recommendations, we should keep the rights of the child at the centre of this discussion, as well as the safety of the family as a whole.
Finally, I would like to briefly comment on the adversarial approach of the family law courts. The reality is that only a small proportion of separating families have their family law disputes determined by the courts. These cases tend to be more complex. It will always be to the family's benefit to mitigate the need to go through an expensive and adversarial process, and it's important to look to alternatives to dispute resolution, including arbitration, conciliation, family dispute resolution and mediation.
The committee now has substantial evidence to guide our deliberations in developing the final recommendations, and I trust that this process will place the safety and wellbeing of children and both parents at the centre of the family law system.