Senate debates

Tuesday, 1 December 2020


Australia's Family Law System Joint Select Committee; Corrigenda to Report

5:42 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

A corrigendum to the report of the Joint Select Committee on Australia's Family Law System was tabled earlier today. The Greens opposed this inquiry from the outset, not because the family law system can't be improved but because initiating another inquiry while so many recommendations from previous inquires remained on the shelf would delay action, and because the inquiry had been politicised by unfounded public comments made by the deputy chair regarding women allegedly abusing the system to punish men and allegedly lying about family and domestic violence.

Specialist services across the women's safety sector raised the same concerns about this inquiry. They reported that survivors were contacting them terrified that the inquiry would embolden their abusers and concerned they would not be believed when they spoke about family violence. Throughout the inquiry, we heard from nearly 1,700 submitters sharing their experiences of the family law system. This has largely re-agitated issues discussed at length in previous inquiries, highlighting the extent to which matters in the family law system are impacted by the scourge of family and domestic violence. Meanwhile, women continue to be killed. We are now at the stage where 48 women have been killed by violence this year.

We know that the COVID crisis has turbocharged the risks that face women and children. The Australian Institute of Criminology found that one in 10 women in a relationship this year has experienced intimate partner violence during the pandemic, many either for the first time or with increased severity. Women are seeking refuge from abusive relationships at record rates. It's exposing the constrained capacity of our prevention programs and support systems for housing, counselling, and financial and legal advice. Without more funding, services like the Women's Legal Service are currently having to turn away nearly half of the women that seek their help. The Family Court is overworked and underfunded. It leads to significant delays in the resolution of complex matters.

We know what needs to happen. Countless recommendations from previous inquiries have set it out. The government should urgently respond to the ALRC's family law inquiry report and ensure that child safety is at the heart of family law reforms. The government should also immediately repeal the presumption of shared parental responsibility—a presumption that, despite its intentions, leads to a culture of entitlement that emboldens abusers to weaponise access to children in disputes. The government needs to implement a national accreditation scheme for family report writers and to facilitate access to superannuation in family law matters as it promised to do in the 2018 Women's Economic Security Statement. The government must also properly fund the Family Court, the Federal Circuit Court, legal aid and women's legal services, to ensure that families have access to legal support and do not experience unnecessary delays in resolving family law disputes.

The government, finally, should abandon plans to merge the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court—which, of course, just passed the House approximately 20 minutes ago—in light of the concerns expressed by the legal profession, by former judges, by the Law Council and by the women's safety sector. Those concerns are that the merger will jeopardise the expertise needed to manage complex family matters, especially those involving domestic and family violence.

The issues raised in this inquiry are not new. The solutions are not mysterious. The government knows what needs to be done to ensure the family law system can support families and protect those escaping family violence. It just needs to get on and do it.