Monday, 9 November 2020
Family Law Amendment (Risk Screening Protections) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill and move:
That this bill be now read a second time.
The Australian government is committed to addressing family violence and continuing to improve the protections offered through the family law system to those vulnerable families affected by violence and abuse. In December this year the government announced $13.5 million for the federal family law courts to pilot a trial systematic approach for the screening of matters of family safety risks and triaging matters into case management pathways according to their identified level of risk. This will include a specialist family violence list for high risk matters. The Family Law Amendment (Risk Screening Protections) Bill 2020 will support the effective implementation of these important new family safety risk screening and triage processes. The new family safety risk screening processes will improve the identification of and responses to family safety risks in family law matters to better achieve outcomes for families navigating the family law system.
The bill reflects the government's commitment to ongoing improvements to the family law system so that families can resolve matters safely, fairly and quickly. The $13.5 million funding for the pilot of risk screening measures builds on the government's heavy investment in addressing domestic violence, with $340 million in funding as part of the Fourth Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022, a $150 million COVID-19 domestic violence support package and around $20 million in additional legal assistance funding to support those affected by domestic violence during the pandemic.
The bill and the pilot also responds to findings from reports examining the law system, including: the family law council's Family with complex needs and the intersection of the family law and child protection systems; the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs 2017 inquiry called a better family law system to support and protect those affected by family violence; and the Australian law reform commission's 2019 report Family law for the future: An inquiry into the family law system.
A new pilot of the new family safety risk screening process will operate from 2020-22 from the Brisbane, Parramatta and Adelaide court registries, which each collectively receive more than 42 per cent of filings. During the pilot a dedicated team within the courts will screen newly filed parenting matters for safety risks and triage and manage matters according to their level of identified risk. A family counsellor will take early action in high risk cases, including conducting a follow up risk assessment, developing safety and wellbeing plans and offering referrals to support services. A specialist family violence list, the Evatt List, named in honour of the Hon. Elizabeth Evatt AC, will be established to manage and resolve high-risk matters. The Evatt List will be supported by a judge led multidisciplinary team, including registrars and family counsellors. The new risk screening and triage processes will be complemented by tailored court processes, safety planning and referrals to support services of at risk families.
The bill will also make minor amendments to the Family Law Act in order to support the new risk screening processes by protecting information that will be generated through the new risks screening processes, which are based off existing Family Law Act provisions.
The bill will ensure that information obtained or generated through the risk-screening process cannot be disclosed, except in limited circumstances. Important exceptions to this confidentiality will enable disclosure if it is necessary to protect a child from the risk of harm or to prevent or lessen serious threats to the life, health or property of a person. These confidentiality provisions are consistent with existing family-counselling provisions in the Family Law Act.
The bill will also ensure that information obtained or generated through the new risk-screening process is inadmissible in any court or tribunal. A critical exception will apply where family safety risk-screening information or evidence indicates that a child has been abused or is at risk of abuse. These admissibility provisions are also consistent with existing family-counselling provisions of the Family Law Act.
By ensuring the confidentiality and the inadmissibility of information obtained through risk screening, the bill will enable parties to freely and confidentially participate in this process. This is especially important for protecting family violence victims in high-risk cases and for maintaining the accuracy and reliability of the risk-screening information and triage matters. The confidentiality and inadmissibility protections for risk-screening information are also appropriate, because the intention is the early identification and management of safety concerns and to provide an appropriate case management pathway for matters, including referring high-risk cases to a dedicated court list. The risk-screening information is not intended to serve the same purpose as or replace evidence in proceedings, which is provided through the usual methods, including the notices of risk that form part of existing practice.
Finally, the bill will provide immunity for court officials, such as registrars and family counsellors, when undertaking new non-judicial roles as part of the risk-screening process. This immunity reflects the protection currently afforded to family consultants under the Family Law Act. It will support court workers to carry out the new functions involved in risk screening, such as making referrals and triaging matters into case management pathways based on risk-screening information.
This bill will enhance the family law system's approach to risk identification and management and improve outcomes for vulnerable families. It is another example of this government's continuing commitment to addressing family violence in Australia and to ensuring that the family law system protects victims of family violence.
Family violence is a scourge in our nation. It is present in a disturbing number of family law matters in both the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court. During the COVID-19 pandemic the problem of family violence has worsened, with more violence being reported this year and greater difficulty accessing services for both victims-survivors and perpetrators. Labor has been fighting to make preventing and responding to family violence a national priority, and we are continuing that fight.
This Family Law Amendment (Risk Screening Protections) Bill 2020 provides legislative support for a domestic violence risk-screening pilot program being rolled out by the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. This program, called the Lighthouse Project, is being trialled in three court registries: Adelaide, Brisbane and Parramatta. The Lighthouse Project will screen for safety risks in all applications and responses for parenting-only orders filed with the courts. Specifically, this new pilot program aims to deliver improved outcomes for families in crisis using the courts through three key measures: new processes for the screening of all new matters for family violence; the triaging of those matters by a specialist team, with matters sent to the most appropriate case management pathways based on an assessment risk and with additional support and safety provided to those families; and the creation of a specialist list, called the Evatt List, with appropriately trained and skilled staff focusing on supporting at-risk families through the court system, supported by early information gathering and intervention when required.
The bill also amends the Family Law Act 1975 to support the Lighthouse Project pilot by establishing protections for sensitive information generated through the screening program and by conferring certain legal immunities on court workers involved in the safety risk screening. The bill also ensures that the sensitive information collected through the screening process is confidential and inadmissible in evidence in proceedings except in limited and appropriate circumstances. The Lighthouse Project is in part a response to many recommendations to improve the family law system and family safety that have been made over many years. These recommendations have been set out in reports that include the Chisholm report for the Attorney-General's Department in 2009; the Family Law Council report on families with complex needs of 2015; the Henderson parliamentary inquiry of 2017; and the Australian Law Reform Commission discussion paper Review of the family law system from 2018.
More specifically, the Lighthouse Project has been put in place in response to the report by Women's Legal Services Australia in October last year called Safety first in family law. Women's Legal Services Australia are to be commended for their outstanding work on behalf of family violence victims-survivors and for their powerful advocacy for meaningful reform of the family law system to keep women and children safe. At its launch in October last year, the Safety First in Family Law program was strongly endorsed by family violence campaigner and former Australian of the Year Rosie Batty. Ms Batty, who was driven to campaign to end family violence after her 11-year-old son, Luke Batty, was murdered by his father, said at the time of the program launch that it was critical for the government to act urgently to reform the family law system. She reminded the government:
Nearly 70 percent of matters lodged in the family courts involve allegations of family violence, but the system is not set up to deal with this—and neither are the many professionals who work within the system
The Lighthouse Project was funded as part of the 2019-20 MYEFO, announced by the government on 17 December 2019. During brief consultations with stakeholders on this bill, there was general agreement that the pilot program should proceed as a matter of urgency.
It is regrettable but unsurprising that the Morrison government has taken so long to introduce this necessary bill and to bring it on for debate. It should have been done in the first sitting week of the year. This government and its Attorney-General seem to have found plenty of time to proceed with their pet ideological projects during the course of this tumultuous year, from trying to shut down the rights of injured Australians to enforce their legal rights through class actions to hurling the resources of the Attorney-General's Department and the Commonwealth's legal team behind Clive Palmer's failed attack on Western Australia's borders. Indeed, the Morrison government hasn't been so busy that the Prime Minister himself couldn't find a week to go to Queensland to throw all he could into the spectacularly failed state election campaign of the Liberal National Party there. It's all a matter of priorities, and this government has made its priorities all too clear.
But, that being said, Labor is pleased that, almost a year after committing to this measure, the government has finally got around to legislating for it. Of course, passage of the legislation does not guarantee the success of the Lighthouse Project. It will simply enable that program to be rolled out at last. It is up to the government to ensure that the project is implemented properly and that the project is successful. If the pilot is shown to be successful, we expect the Morrison government to immediately provide the additional funding required to roll the program out across all Family Court and Federal Circuit Court registries across the nation as a matter of urgent priority.
This bill represents another step in the fight against the scourge and the national shame that is family violence, but much more needs to be done. We need more federal government support for frontline government services, including refuges and emergency accommodation for women and their children fleeing family violence. We need more federal government support for legal assistance services, including women's legal services, which play a vital role for women and their families who are at risk of or suffering from family violence. Indeed, as I have made clear today, the Lighthouse Project, which this bill provides legislative support for, was largely developed with the expertise of Women's Legal Services Australia.
We also need the federal government to do more to prevent family violence occurring and more to provide practical support to families suffering from family violence. This means that we need a government that is willing to set appropriate standards, including standards that demonstrate respect for women and consequences for those who do not show that respect. The Gillard government made domestic and family violence a national priority. The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children was established under the last Labor government, which outlined the roles, responsibilities and priorities for federal governments to respond to domestic and family violence in Australia. With this plan came funding for frontline services, research and primary prevention. Labor is strongly committed to the prevention of domestic, family and sexual violence in Australia, and our record speaks for itself. I commend this bill to the House and I move the second reading amendment circulated in my name in the following terms:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:
(1)recognises the ongoing scourge of family violence in Australia;
(2)acknowledges there has been a surge in family violence since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic; and
(a)in its Budget, the Government announced unprecedented spending of hundreds of billions of dollars;
(b)this spending will contribute to unprecedented deficits and a national debt in excess of one trillion dollars; and
(c)despite this spending, the Government has not done nearly enough to support frontline services carrying out their vital functions of protecting women and children facing the threat of family violence".
It never ceases to amaze me how those members opposite, the member for Isaacs in particular, are able to twist a good-news story around what the government is doing to help end the scourge of domestic violence into a partisan political point-scoring exercise. It is very disappointing but absolutely typical.
Domestic and family violence does not occur in a vacuum. It can never be excused, but some of the factors that commonly precede it can be identified. Among these, stress, alcohol and substance abuse, anger, and frustration are prevalent. For those who are going through the family courts, these factors can become acute. It is no surprise in this context that there were between 700 and 800 formal notices of family violence filed in the Family Court of Australia in each of the past three years. These formal notices are only the tip of the iceberg, with many more allegations of domestic and family violence being made in affidavits provided to the courts. The court's own data suggests that a further 37 per cent of women who experience domestic violence never disclose it while interacting with the family law system.
This House's Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, of which I am chair, has been conducting an inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence. Hearings for this inquiry are ongoing, and I will not pre-empt the committee's findings and recommendations. I would like to acknowledge the presence in the chamber of my deputy chair on that committee, who will no doubt be speaking on this bill. However, I can inform the House that, in the evidence which the committee has received to date, many witnesses have seen a role for the family courts—when I say 'family courts' I'm talking about the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court—in helping to reduce the impact of domestic violence.
I'm pleased to say that the Morrison government, too, recognises this role. That's why, in December 2019, this government announced a pilot program known as the Lighthouse Project, with a funding allocation of $13½ million. This pilot program will take place in the Adelaide, Brisbane and Parramatta registries of the two federal family law courts over the next two years. The pilot will use an online risk-screening questionnaire to allow early identification and the ongoing monitoring of the risk of family and domestic violence in families going through the court system. It will be a more systematic process to avoid families falling through the cracks and it will ensure that risks to vulnerable individuals can be proactively managed on an ongoing basis. Those who are identified as being at risk will be provided with information about planning for their safety and where they can find support. Their cases will be managed by a specialist judge-led multidisciplinary team, including registrars, family counsellors and legal support, and will be prioritised based on the level of risk.
However, one important factor remains to be locked in before the pilot can proceed, and that is to make sure that all parties can have complete confidence that the sensitive information they reveal by taking part in the questionnaire will not be released to anyone else and cannot be used to influence their own case. That is what the bill before the House will address. The bill will provide unequivocally that information obtained or generated through the risk-screening process is inadmissible in family law or in any other type of legal proceedings. The one and only exception to this inadmissibility would be in cases where the risk screening information indicates that a child under 18 has been abused or is at risk of abuse and that information is not accessible from other sources.
Although we must encourage parties to a family law matter to make open and thorough disclosures, we also need to keep the purpose of the system in mind. The risk-screening process exists to protect individuals from serious harm, and where disclosure of the information gathered through the process would achieve that purpose it is appropriate that such disclosure should be required. As such, the bill provides that officers and staff, members of the court, family counsellors, contractors and subcontractors involved in the risk-screening process must not disclose the information gathered. However, it also provides for a series of exemptions designed to protect the individuals involved from serious harm. In particular, information may be disclosed if it would protect a child from physical or psychological harm, or reduce a serious and imminent threat to the life or health of any person. It would allow information to be disclosed if a crime involving violence or the threat of violence toward a person has been committed or is likely to be committed as well as if a similar offence involving the criminal removal or damage of a person's property is involved.
This government is already investing heavily in addressing domestic and family violence. In March 2019 this government allocated $340 million in funding as part of the Fourth Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. During this pandemic we have provided another $150 million to respond to the increased prevalence and impact created by the COVID-19 crisis, which my committee has received so much evidence about.
In my own community on the Sunshine Coast the Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services joined me and the member for Fairfax just last week to announce that local not-for-profit community housing provider Coast2Bay are receiving $2.6 million of Morrison government funding. This investment will be used by Coast2Bay to purchase eight new dwellings at two sites on the Sunshine Coast which will be used as emergency accommodation for women and their children who are escaping domestic and family violence.
This funding is being delivered to Coast2Bay under the Safe Places Emergency Accommodation grants. I'm grateful to the assistant minister for recognising the terrific work that Andrew Elvin, Lee Banfield and the team at Coast2Bay are doing. I look forward to next year when this new accommodation will be providing a way out for hundreds of vulnerable women and children on the Sunshine Coast. In the context of this $490 million investment, this bill will facilitate another critical part of the Morrison government's comprehensive action to combat domestic and family violence. I commend the bill to the House.
I'm very pleased to stand in the chamber to make a contribution to the debate on the Family Law Amendment (Risk Screening Protections) Bill 2020. This bill creates some important legislative protections to support the rollout of a domestic violence risk screening pilot program which will run in court registries in Adelaide, Brisbane and Parramatta. It's impossible to actually overstate the prominence of domestic violence in Family Court disputes today. Indeed, a 2016 audit of the work done by Legal Aid commissions in Australia found it to be a factor in a staggering 79 per cent of Legal Aid family law matters. As the first step in the risk assessment process in the courts, screening is critical. It's designed to identify people who might be at risk of family violence so that further investigation of preventive action may be taken.
Of course, Labor supports this bill. Stakeholders and frontline organisations have been pleading for a consistently applied national risk assessment tool for years. It was recommended by the Chisholm report in 2009. It was identified as a problem by the Law Council report in 2015. It was recommended by the Council of Australian Governments advisory panel on reducing violence against women and their children in 2016. It was a key recommendation of a parliamentary inquiry that the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs conducted into a better family law system to protect those experiencing family violence back in 2017. I remember it well because I was the deputy chair.
But let's not ever lose sight of the fact that this is not an abstract matter for committees to ponder and later forget. These are matters with very real and lasting human consequences. Indeed, in 2015, the coroner in the inquest into the death of Luke Batty identified the lack of a consistently applied risk assessment tool as a factor in that tragedy, yet here we are in the closing weeks of 2020, and the legislation has only just today come before the Australian parliament. The fact that this has taken so long—so many years—is frankly appalling and it doesn't say good things about the priorities of this government. Indeed, it points to the huge gap between the rhetoric and the action, between intent and delivery.
None of these risk screening trials could take place until this bill came before the chamber. As I said, people, frontline organisations have been calling for it for a long time, have been waiting and wondering the hold-up has been. Frankly, that is a very good question which only the government can answer. Nonetheless, we on this side of the House welcome the pilot project, make no mistake. We support this bill. It is a significant step forward. If the pilot is successful when we've done these rollouts in Brisbane, Adelaide and Parramatta then I fully expect the Morrison government to be ready to urgently fund the rollout of this program across the nation. But when it comes to the diabolical scourge of domestic violence, this is not simply enough. Foremost among the needs to make sure that Australian women and their children are kept safe is a stronger commitment of resources.
Back in 2017, when the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs did its inquiry into how, through the Family Court system, we might better support women and children fleeing violence or experiencing violence, stakeholders and services told us again and again that they cannot deliver what women and children need to remain safe with the very meagre resources they've been allocated. They told us they had to turn women away or take on the burden of providing the support themselves with no funding or by asking staff to work without pay.
Sadly, in 2020, I'm hearing exactly the same things echoed as deputy chair of the social policy and legal affairs committee's next inquiry, which is focused on family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia. Our courts and our judges are at breaking point, with people having to wait a year or more to have their cases heard. At the same time, the community organisations charged with assisting and supporting women and children fleeing from violence are buckling under the weight of unmet need. It's absolutely unforgivable that there was no new funding for the courts or our frontline service providers in this year's federal budget.
We also need greater investment in legal services, which play a profoundly important role in giving women the legal information, advice and support to successfully leave violent relationships. This has become even more urgent in recent months given the increase in the incidence of family and domestic violence during COVID-19. When the Australian Institute of Criminology surveyed 15,000 Australian women in May, it found that a staggering 8.2 per cent of those who live with their partners had experienced physical violence during the preceding three months. That is nearly one in 10 women. Of great concern is that nearly two-thirds of those women said this was the first time their partner had been violent with them.
If the federal government were serious about banishing the scourge of domestic violence, it would ensure that the courts and legal and community organisations have the resources to help those who need it. But it's not just funding that is needed. There is one thing that stakeholders have consistently put at the top of the list to drive down domestic violence that won't cost a cent, and that is the removal of the presumption of shared equal parental responsibility in custody cases. There is substantial evidence that this presumption is leading to inappropriate and, sometimes, downright dangerous parental arrangements. Even though there are exemptions available for families experiencing violence, they are very rarely used.
Only a matter of weeks ago, the Law Council of Australia, along with a series of frontline organisations, told the parliamentary inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence that this is the single most important priority to protect women and children in the family law system. To this end, the member for Moreton has already tabled a bill that does exactly this. In doing so, it ensures that children's interests are given the utmost priority in family law decisions. Protecting women and children must be absolutely central to the mission of our family courts and our social services system. I recognise that the bill before us today is a step forward, but we must urgently do so much more. We must provide proper resourcing to our courts, our legal services and our community sector, and we must immediately remove the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility in Family Court decisions.
( I thank members for their contributions to the debate on the Family Law Amendment (Risk Screening Protections) Bill 2020. The Morrison government is committed to addressing family violence and continuing to improve the protections offered through the family law system to those vulnerable families affected by violence and abuse. This bill will support the implementation of the Lighthouse Project in the Adelaide, Brisbane and Parramatta registries of the federal family law courts from 2020 until mid-2022. The Lighthouse Project has been enabled by $13.5 million in funding provided by the government in the 2019-20 MYEFO which will allow the federal family law courts to pilot risk screening, triaging processes and a specialist family violence list in each of the three registries.
This bill will ensure that the appropriate protections are in place to support the effective implementation of these important new processes by protecting sensitive risks for any information and conferring immunity on court workers. The new family safety risk screening process will allow the early identification and ongoing assessment and management of risks to vulnerable families navigating the family law system. This bill will amend the Family Law Act to ensure that information generated during the risk screening process is confidential and inadmissible. This will ensure the family safety risk screening information cannot be disclosed, except in limited circumstances. Important exceptions to this confidentiality will enable disclosure if it is necessary to protect a child from the risk of harm or to prevent or lessen serious threats to the life, health or property of a person. It will also ensure that information obtained or generated through the risk screening process is inadmissible, subject to exemptions such as where family safety risk screening information indicates that a child has been abused or is at risk of abuse.
These confidentiality and admissibility provisions are consistent with existing family counselling provisions of the Family Law Act. By ensuring the confidentiality and inadmissibility of information obtained through risk screening, the bill will enable parties to freely and confidentially participate in the process. It will also ensure that many at-risk parties will receive tailored referrals to support services and assistance with safety planning. Finally, the bill will provide immunity for court workers, such as registrars and family counsellors, when undertaking new non-judicial roles as part of the family safety risk screening process. This immunity reflects the protection currently afforded to judges and family consultants under the Family Law Act.
The Family Law Amendment (Risk Screening Protections) Bill will ensure that appropriate protections are in place to support the government-funded Lighthouse Project initiative and allow new family safety risk screening and triage processes in the federal family law courts. This bill is another reform of this government to address family violence and builds on the more than $1 billion invested by the government since 2013. The bill will help to improve the identification and management of family safety risks to achieve better outcomes for families engaged with the family law system.
I commend the bill to the House.
The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Isaacs has moved as an amendment that all words after 'that' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.
Question agreed to.
Original question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.