Monday, 22 February 2021
Family Law Amendment (A Step Towards a Safer Family Law System) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise to speak in support of this bill. I commend the member for Morton for bringing this forward, because it is designed to make the system safer for children and safer for women. If there were ever a time that this parliament should be acting on it, it is now, and it is in this parliament, right here, right now. When people separate, it's one of the most difficult things that many people go through in their lives. When you separate and you have children, that is additionally so. We have developed in this country a system of laws that are based around, or should be based around, a central principle: in that situation, when there is a separation and you have to decide who is going to look after the child and in what way, you do what's in the best interests of the child. That is what comes first. You make the decisions on the basis of where they're going to be safest and also what's going to promote their welfare the best. That is as it should be. The arrangements that are going to be made will be different for each group of people involved, and that's why we should leave it up to a specialist Family Court, the likes of which the government shamefully abolished during the course of last week. We should leave it up to judges who know this area and have expertise in it to make the decisions, taking into account the situation of the child.
But what has happened in this country is that, after amendments were made to our laws, presumptions have crept in, sometimes wrongly by judges, I would say, but certainly by some parts of the community. From the provisions in the act that talk about a presumption of equal shared responsibility, people end up thinking that means a presumption of equal time and that, if there is a split, the child's time is going to be split 50-50. The problem is that, if you start from that presumption and say, 'This should be the presumption'—and you can bring in factors to rebut it, but that should be the presumption—firstly, you don't get what's in the best interests of the child, because, all of a sudden, that totally becomes a secondary consideration.
It's not only what happens when there has been a split in a family; it also works backwards from there, because, if women are in a relationship where they fear for their safety and they think that one of the consequences of leaving that relationship is that the child is potentially going to end up, by law, spending 50 per cent of the time with someone that they think is an abusive parent, then they're less inclined to leave the relationship and are more inclined to stay in an abusive situation.
In this sitting fortnight, of all sitting fortnights, as we mark the tragic anniversary of the murder of Hannah Clarke, we need to understand that, when women are in situations where they fear for their and their children's safety, the job of the system, including the family law system, should be to facilitate the passage to make their kids safe. They should not have to think, as is often the case, 'If I leave, I might have to go through a family law system. I've heard that the words "equal presumption of shared responsibility" mean 50-50 time. Therefore, I won't be able to have time to look after my kid.' That is what goes through the minds of many women at the moment. That is why the Law Reform Commission, amongst others, have said that this presumption needs to be removed, because it does more harm than good and we need to leave it up to judges who can decide what is in the best interests of the child in every individual situation. It is sometimes said, 'That will result in fathers not having access to their kids,' but the stats don't bear that out. The stats show that the courts, when they are looking at every individual situation, still, in the overwhelming majority of situations, continue to grant access. I commend the member for Morton for bringing this forward, because this bill will make women and children safer.