Senate debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020


Australia's Family Law System Joint Select Committee; Report

5:18 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the tabling of the interim report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Australia's Family Law System in my capacity as a member of that committee. The interim report contains a comprehensive review of the evidence the committee has heard to date. The committee has received a significant amount of evidence covering many issues facing family law in Australia. A total of 1,692 submissions have been received, and the committee has heard from 64 organisations and professionals and 85 individuals, in 11 public hearings. We've also held 13 in camera hearings. The committee has continued its work, although it hasn't been able to travel, for obvious reasons, during this pandemic.

On 31 August 2020 both houses of parliament agreed to extend the reporting date for this inquiry to the last sitting day in February 2021. The committee felt that it would be timely to table an interim report, providing the parliament and the community with an update on the committee's work. The interim report is comprehensive, running to 12 chapters and over 300 pages. This is reflective of the breadth of issues that have been raised within the community.

Some of the key issues explored in the report included perceptions of bias within the system, the role of family consultants and expert witnesses, legal fees and the costs of the family law system, delays in the Family Court and issues in relation to family violence. The report also considers issues arising in parenting and property disputes. There is so much in terms of the evidence that has been brought before the committee that you can't help but be touched by the emotional and the psychological impact that a dispute going through the family law courts unfortunately has on all those involved, particularly children.

This is an area of law which is not only complex but highly emotional and draining for individuals and families. When relationships break down and families separate, often the family law system works to ensure the most appropriate outcome for the parties involved. But, from the evidence that we've received, I don't believe there's any family that ends up in the Family Court that isn't permanently scarred by the experience. It is extremely expensive, it's costly and it's time consuming. The personal stories of pain and anguish were not lost on any members of the committee, and I'd just like to, at this point in time, thank all of those who are on this select committee, because it has been an enduring commitment to continue this inquiry through this COVID pandemic.

I note that this committee should never have really existed though. That's the reality. This committee was formed as part of a political deal that was done. We know that there have been countless reports into the family law system in this country. In the last two years alone there has been a report sitting on the Attorney-General's desk and the Prime Minister's desk, with 93 recommendations on how to improve the family law system in this country, but nothing has happened. Like so many reports that are done by fantastic committees and secretaries who put countless hours and weeks and months into these inquiries, those recommendations just sit and gather dust. This is the time to actually act, to change, to invest in and to properly resource the family law system in this country. While we can make recommendation after recommendation, if there is not the will of the parliament and there is not the will of the government, nothing will happen. But it must happen.

I want to make my perspective very clear: it is very hard when allegations are made in evidence, as given to committees, when you only ever hear one side of that particular story. It is confronting to hear the tragedies, the heartache and the pain that is caused through relationships breaking down. A lot of the time the contributions made by witnesses were heart-wrenching and touched people through to their souls, in my view. When I was first put onto this committee, we were all advised that there would be counselling available for committee members and for witnesses, and I, for one, thought, 'Well, that won't really be necessary,' but I understand now why people do need counselling. This is such an important area of law in this country that affects not just individual families and extended families; it also affects our communities.

I'd also like to put on the record an issue from my home state of Tasmania. I live in Launceston. Mark Dreyfus from the other place, the shadow Attorney-General, and I and others have been lobbying for many years to have improvements done to the Launceston family law court. And finally, in this budget—I commend the government for finally, after too many years I might add, doing this. My concern still is that this funding is over four years. I would urge the government to do everything that it can to ensure that the new family law court in Launceston makes that transition as soon as possible because the benefits, as I said, go way beyond those individual families which go through the court system. Those who sit on the bench, their lawyers and advocates—everyone—will benefit if that court can be relocated as soon as possible.

But I just don't want to see the $5.4 million over four years for the relocation happening and then find that we're back here in a few years, asking, 'When is that going to happen?' So I urge those people on the other side to join with me in urging that the relocation happens sooner rather than later.

I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.