Thursday, 8 October 2020
Australia's Family Law System Joint Select Committee; Report
I might start by just saying that it is actually a real honour to follow the member for Reid and the member for Warringah in speaking on this interim report of the Joint Select Committee on Australia's Family Law System. Like the member for Warringah, I too was sceptical going into this committee inquiry, primarily because we have had so many such inquiries before but also because of some of the public statements that had been made by the deputy chair of the committee. But I have to say that working on a committee with some very strong and very professional women who have brought to the committee a wealth of experience—the member for Reid with her experience in counselling and her professional experience working with people in relationships and the member for Warringah with her experience with the family law system—and the composition of this committee has been absolutely critical to the success thus far that I see in this committee and in the interim report that has been produced. I commend the members of the committee, and I commend the secretariat for a very long and very comprehensive interim draft.
As the member for Warringah mentioned, we heard from 64 different organisations and professionals and 85 individuals through 11 public and 13 in-camera hearings. With COVID creating the disruption that it did, it's quite a feat that we managed to get through that number of hearings using teleconference and videoconferencing facilities as we did. COVID certainly did not arrest the development of this committee and our ability to progress the inquiry.
The committee received a huge number of submissions—well over 1,600. One of the things about this committee and the subject matter is that it is a highly emotive issue. One of the reasons that I nominated to be on this committee is that I have been through the system, had dealings with the Child Support Agency and the Family Court, and also had experiences of family and domestic violence. So from my perspective I was really interested to see if things had changed in the 25 years or so since I had dealings with those agencies.
Sadly, what I've found through this inquiry, through the hearings and evidence that was presented, is that nothing's changed. The issues and challenges and the substantive issues with the process that I encountered all those years ago still exist. It's heartbreaking that since then families and individuals have had to go through that same thing.
The Labor members of the committee have submitted some additional comments to the interim report. The primary point that we make in these comments is the point made by the member for Warringah earlier: that this inquiry follows no less than 67 other inquiries and reports into the family law system since the Family Law Act 1975 commenced in January 1976. You would think that 67 inquiries and reports would have fixed some of those issues that I mentioned, issues which I witnessed personally 25 years ago and which still exist, as the committee heard in evidence over last few months. We make several recommendations in our additional comments. Every single one of those recommendations relates to a recommendation that was made in previous reports, the two most recent previous inquiries and reports being the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs report A better family law system to support and protect those affected by family violence, tabled in December 2017—also known as the Henderson report—and the Australian Law Reform Commission's report Family law for the future: an inquiry into the family law system tabled in March 2019. Together, these two reports have a combined 93 recommendations, which we believe will improve the family law system. Many of the recommendations in our additional comments relate to calling on the government, as the member for Warringah did, to implement the recommendations of previous reports to address the issues that have been raised once again through this inquiry and no doubt will be raised and become recommendations—though I don't want to pre-empt the final report but, given the evidence we've heard so far, will be recommendations in the final report from this committee as well.
I want to say one last thing, and that is the level of evidence that we heard about domestic violence. As the member for Warringah said, the terms of reference for this inquiry were extremely broad and covered child support, domestic violence and childcare responsibilities, as well as the overwhelming issue that came out: the adversarial nature of the family law system. Domestic violence came up time and time again and we heard a lot of conflicting evidence, some from men who alleged to be falsely accused of domestic violence and some from women who were victims of domestic violence. Through all that evidence, it became very clear to me that more needs to be done. When we talk about domestic violence, it's not just about preventing domestic violence but about how we deal with it when it presents in the Family Court. Included in the evidence that we heard from professionals in this space was their recommendation of better training for those in the family law system to recognise and deal with domestic violence. That is something that we could start working on immediately.
Finally, I commend this interim report to the House. It is, as I mentioned, a long report, but it is very comprehensive and I think it does justice to the people who came and gave evidence. To the individuals who came and revisited very emotional times in their life, very emotional situations and experience in their lives, I thank you. I thank you for your bravery in coming forward. I thank you for your generosity in sharing your story. I know that it can be very difficult and very taxing on both your mental and your emotional wellbeing when you do that, but I learned a long time ago that nothing changes if you don't speak up and don't share your story. Sharing that story can be very powerful. It has been an honour to hear the evidence from those people, as well as the evidence from professionals, but I particularly want to make special mention of the individuals who came and told their personal stories. Some went through quite horrific and highly emotional circumstances. Once again, I commend this interim report to the House, and I give my thanks to the committee, the secretariat and all witnesses who put in submissions and appeared at the hearings.