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Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs - 27/06/2014 - Child support program

LOUGHMAN, Ms Janet, Principal Solicitor, Women's Legal Services New South Wales

MOREY, Ms Alira, Senior Solicitor, Women's Legal Services New South Wales

[13:47]

CHAIR: I welcome representatives from the Women's Legal Services New South Wales. I do not think I need to repeat the preamble because you already heard it. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Ms Loughman : We are both going to contribute to an opening statement. I will commence with a brief overview about Women's Legal Services and then a brief overview of the main points from our submission. Women's Legal Services is a state-wide community legal centre established over 30 years ago. It is funded by state and federal governments and is part of the public legal assistance sector. We provide advice and casework, community legal education and law reform work. The focus of our work is disadvantaged clients—women who are disadvantaged by their cultural, social and economic circumstances.

We provide advice to women by telephone—that is, advice to women throughout New South Wales. We provide outreach services in Western Sydney. We appear in courts in Western Sydney in apprehended domestic violence order matters. We do a range of other work including working with family relationship centres.

The main areas that we have worked in over a very long period of time is family law, family and domestic violence, sexual assault, care and protection, and crimes compensation for women who have experienced sexual and domestic violence and sexual assault.

To highlight some of the main issues and recommendations we made in our submission, the first point I would like to talk about is what we see as a serious concern with the absence of any reference to family violence in the terms of reference. The expression 'high conflict' is used in the committee's terms of reference. Our concern is for the potential for high-conflict families and families where domestic and family violence is present to be considered as the same type of case. We see that there are some very real differences. When family violence cases are categorised as high conflict, the effect can be that the violence is mutualised and responsibility for stopping the violence is shifted onto victims. It puts the safety of women and children at risk.

Family violence refers to a pattern of behaviour and the dynamics of power and control. It is broadly experienced and, I think, importantly for this inquiry, includes financial abuse. Family violence is used to gain benefits and resources within a relationship. Social science literature documents this and it is our experience when advising and representing women in family law matters. Our strong feeling is that this should resonate for the child support system and greater recognition given to how the child support system may be used as a tool of systems abuse by perpetrators of family violence.

A number of our recommendations revolve around the issue of better identification of domestic and family violence so we are recommending that policy be developed that supports frontline DHS staff to conduct mandatory screening for domestic and family violence in all cases, and to record family and domestic violence on clients' child support records. We also feel that it is very important for the legislation to be amended to include a reference to the best interests of the child being a paramount consideration in child support decisions. We feel that this would bring child support laws into the same legislative framework as other laws affecting children and, very appropriately, provide a focus on what is in the best interests of the child.

I will move briefly on to the role of mediation in assisting with child support disputes. We have some concerns about the use of mediation although we also see a role for it. Our concern revolves around its appropriateness where there is a history of domestic and family violence. Mediation requires equal bargaining power between the two parties and domestic violence is characterised by an uneven balance of power and abuse of power. So to have fair and just mediation, it requires that equal bargaining power. Any efforts that the system makes to increase family dispute resolution or mediation services around child support, we say, needs to be very well supported and resourced. Lawyer assisted mediation can assist where there is the presence of family and domestic violence. But family dispute resolution practitioners and, if it is a family relationship centre, for example, need to put resources into the system in order to make those mediations safe. We need good risk assessment. We need good understanding of the impacts of domestic and family violence. We need good support and we need legal advice and representation through the process.

We would suggest that prior to any child support mediations taking place all family dispute resolution practitioners be given comprehensive training in the law, administrative processes and policies around child support. So as well as those protections around domestic and family violence, there needs to be, we see, an increase in comprehension around the child support system, which, I think we all know, is very complex.

I would also like to briefly mention what we see as an important issue for this inquiry—that is, to investigate the extent of child support arrears. We see that a lot of children are missing out. We do not know exactly what the child support arrears are but they are reported in the media to be approximately $1.3 billion. We feel that this is a lot of money that children and their primary carers are missing out on. And our experience tells us that child support arrears can be indicative of ongoing financial abuse in a relationship.

They are the main issues I wanted to highlight from our submission. I will hand over to Alira to talk further about the issues, particularly from the point of view of the clients we see and the issues that arise for them.

Ms Morey : To give you some context about my background, I have exclusively worked in the field of family law in private practice, legal aid and in the community legal centre sphere. In my capacity at Women's Legal Services New South Wales, the clients we advise and represent will often report—in the context that the majority of our clients are victims of family and domestic violence—that they have had significant troubles with child support and parenting arrangements. And how one can be leveraged against the other is a common theme that we see.

Janet mentioned the term 'high conflict' in the terms of reference. We really want to draw the distinction between high-conflict families and families experiencing domestic and family violence. We have seen, for example, where mothers as payees apply for child support or lodge some kind of either objection or change of assessment application through the child support system, which will have the effect of the payer having to pay more child support to reflect care arrangements. In our experience, we have seen fathers threaten mothers that they will commence court proceedings or indeed do commence court proceedings to drag out that litigation process for what we see as seeking to circumvent adequate financial support and best interests for children.

We also see examples where it has taken two years to resolve Family Court litigation matters about parenting arrangements. And once those are finished then child support challenges are initiated by payer fathers which continue then for several months thereafter. Again, our concern there is embroiling parents in these lengthy disputes about parenting and child support arrangements. Our concern is that this is perhaps another vehicle of financial abuse that is being perpetuated through the system.

I recall a client who was the primary carer for the children and the other party did not lodge tax returns on time. The effect, when he did lodge the tax returns, created an issue where there was a Centrelink debt because of the overpayment of family tax benefits to the payee mother. So I think one of the issues is the alignment of care with Centrelink and child support, which is generally something that we would support. But issues can arise because of Centrelink overpayments. Things do not seem to mesh quite well to protect those victims of violence who are the primary carers of children, who end up being left in a situation where they face a Centrelink debt and enforcement action, who have not received adequate financial support for the children and who are now left to fend for themselves. These are some of the issues we are seeing.

As Janet mentioned and as we highlighted in our submission, mediation as alternative dispute resolution and family dispute resolution is broadly where the family system is headed towards, increasing involvement with this particular system.

What we would ask is that we all tread very cautiously in this area, especially in relation to bringing child support into the FDR realm. I was involved in legally assisted mediation where the parents had agreed that they would like to talk about financial support for their children. That was an agenda item discussed. Agreements were reached around parenting time and then the financial agreements were discussed. At the end of that agreement, the particular mediation service involved printed out the whiteboard notes and handed around the documents for both parents to sign and date immediately. My concern with that was the lack of understanding by the family dispute resolution practitioners about the possible implications of parents signing such an agreement—what that might mean in terms of child support legislation. Again, treading carefully in terms of how we are looking at child support in the realm of FDR would be something that we would caution about.

On the topic of mediation and also more broadly, with the intersection of Centrelink and child support, frontline staff, in our experience, perhaps need to be provided with better and more specific domestic and family violence training. I understand there are already policies in place and screening protocols in place, but in our experience women are coming to us having already liaised with Centrelink officers, for example, or Child Support officers, and neither of those organisations have picked up on the domestic and family violence issues at play. Our concern is perhaps the number of women. I cannot quote a number on this. My concern would be the number of women who are perhaps falling through the gaps in the system and are not being supported or recognised as being victims of family and domestic violence. If the system—Centrelink or Child Support—is unaware of that history and perhaps ongoing issues of violence continuing to be perpetrated against them and their children, then the system is not dealing as effectively as it should with those families.

We have some other examples we can provide, but in the interests of time we are happy to answer any questions the committee might have.

CHAIR: I would like to assure you that, for the purposes of the terms of reference, high-conflict families does not include those families where there has been domestic violence. We have discussed that issue already. High-conflict means where there has been intractable difference. The domestic violence issues are treated separately by Child Support now, where they have determined that domestic violence is an issue. When we talk about these recommendations, the existing parameters around domestic violence and where that is recorded against the particular case file would remain in place. There is no view of lumping that in with what we are talking about here.

Ms CLAYDON: I would certainly like to reinforce that this committee accepts that there is a very clear need to distinguish between family violence and high-conflict families. You can be assured of that. There are a number of areas, but I would like to start with the unknown extent of child support arrears. We are trying to get some data around that ourselves. You made a note in your submission about some more stringent methods of collection. Do you have any thoughts in that regard that you could advocate here? Are there any models overseas that we might look at? Over to you to take us through some of those ideas that you may have.

Ms Loughman : I will briefly make a comment and then I will ask Alira to as well. We have made reference to the New Zealand model. Although we do not have an in-depth understanding of that model, we do see that there is an opportunity for some more creative measures to be looked into. We see the benefits of the New Zealand model where government steps in to make the payment. Children are then receiving financial assistance in a more timely manner, which is a good thing. We also think that there may be some more incentive for government to chase arrears if it is a debt to the Commonwealth. We see those two advantages in the New Zealand system.

Ms Morey : I will not speak directly to the New Zealand system, but I understand that fairly recently a new bill was passed in New Zealand making some amendments to the child support system. It is beyond my area of knowledge or expertise to comment on that jurisdiction's legislation. As Janet mentioned, it would be something to look into—other mechanisms in other jurisdictions, particularly New Zealand as it is a jurisdiction that Australia has a child support reciprocal relationship with. If there is quite a creative and effective method of child support being paid in a timely manner for the adequate support of children, that is perhaps a priority that we need to look at.

More broadly, in terms of the arrears issue in Australia, perhaps an issue that needs to be explored is that there is no legislated amount. Once arrears reach a particular level, then Child Support will commence enforcement action at court, for example. Broadly, enforcement action can be garnishing a payer's wages, taking a chunk of money from their bank account to pay off arrears they have built up, intercepting tax refunds—things like that. Many of the clients that we advise and represent will often complain: 'Why should it be only if I have $100,000 child support owing for the financial support of the children? Do I have to wait until the arrears reach that level before Child Support will do something about it?' Or: 'Is it because the payer has property listed in other people's names and therefore Child Support will not commence enforcement?' There is a sense of no clear pathway as to when Child Support will commence enforcement action in court. Perhaps we could get some clear understanding from them.

Given that it is such a priority to reduce the national child support arrears and that it is a priority for adequate financial support for children to be made in a timely manner, it does not stand to reason that we do not have a clear pathway or clear understanding—that we can advise parents that this is what the legislation says or this is what clear policy from DHS or FaHCSIA says: 'Once your arrears reach this amount, then government has made a commitment to do something about it.' This is in fact what we are doing. It seems to be—and these are my words—to some degree: 'It's in the too-hard basket. We can't pin the payer down to that figure, so it's not worth the cost of litigation.' I appreciate the economic side of that argument, but what does that say to the payees, who are the primary carers of children and are doing without? More investigation is perhaps needed around that area.

Ms CLAYDON: You have also recommended that the government guarantee child support payments and recover the liability from the payers. I do not know if you have had any modelling around that area, but you are certainly not the only people to suggest this to us. One of the criticisms of going down that path has been whether we would be encouraging non-payment. I am wondering whether you have some thoughts around that and how you might try and ensure that that was not a consequence of moving into a government guarantee of payment for kids.

Ms Loughman : My first thought is that if it is linked to more purposeful enforcement that should not be the case.

Ms Morey : Along the same lines, anecdotally we hear from parents and New Zealand system, where as we understand it the government internal revenue will essentially top up the payee the child support amount and then it is the payer who then has to repay the child-support amount to government. The effect that that has had has been to reduce the personal element of: 'Why should I pay him or her child-support? They're just going to spend it on their social life or they're just going to mismanage their funds.' By removing that element of it being a payment to him or her and making it actually a recognised payment that you need to make to the government and the government pays the payee, it becomes just something that you must pay. Removing that personal element may have some success in ensuring that the payer does just pay the amount that they are required to pay the government.

Ms CLAYDON: It was also proposed to us by the single mothers council, I think—they raised concerns also about making sure we understood the distinction between family violence and high conflict families—that there be a quite separate and dedicated domestic violence unit that would work across departments and assist victims of family violence to navigate the complexities and not have to retell their story again and again. I am wondering whether you would be broadly supportive of such a unit. Do you see a need or would it be a duplication?

Ms Loughman : I think that measures that are better equipped to identify and respond to domestic and family violence are a good idea.

Ms Morey : Thankfully, in the media we as a public are learning more and more about how prevalent family and domestic violence actually is. The response from government needs to continue the momentum of showing commitment to protecting women and children and of safety being a No. 1 priority. Therefore, any measure that may assist with keeping women and children safe in navigating agencies like child support and Centrelink would be something that we would support. I guess the only thing, perhaps, and this may be in a personal capacity, is that, I would think from an economic perspective, I would like to make sure the government could commit to keeping such a unit up and running, because my fear would be that if there was this resource and it was taken away that could expose women and children to future safety issues, and then they would have to retell their story anyway. I think that, more broadly, training for frontline staff across all of those relevant agencies is essential, because invariably you are going to get parents who will be speaking to multiple people throughout the system, so to speak. So a better understanding for those working within it is something that we would recommend.

Ms BUTLER: If you could have only one change to child support in Australia, what would it be?

Ms Morey : I cannot answer that question! I think the best interests of the children need to be a very strong priority and commitment, to bring the Family Law Act framework and legislation, whose objects and principles are clearly the best interests of the children, and bring that in line with the two major pieces of child support legislation, whose objects and principles are different. They are still clearly in relation to adequate and timely financial support for children and that parents are obliged to pay, but they bring in alignment those two major frameworks, which ideally would have the flow-on effect of ensuring that everybody working within those two frameworks are working with the same principles and priorities. Of course, we mean best interests of children, especially in light of the family violence provisions which came into the Family Law Act in 2012, identifying that safety is the number one priority when we are talking about best interests.

Ms BUTLER: Do you feel from your experience working with your clients that in some cases the best interests of the child are not been given sufficient priority?

Ms Morey : Yes and for a multitude of reasons. When you look in the context of child support, there are issues such as payee mothers whom we represent who are not receiving timely or appropriate child support, which has been assessed and should be paid, which has the result that the child misses out. Indeed, we are seeing that children's best interests are not being met in that respect.

Ms BUTLER: And is that a consequence of framework in respect of what the obligations are or is a consequence of the failure to enforce compliance with the obligations?

Ms Morey : Both I would say. There may well be systemic problems which need to be addressed but on a case-by-case basis there are certainly issues and complexities in all separated parent situations. In the parents we represent, being family violence victims, those issues are even greater we would argue, and those clients are very vulnerable. When we look at any kind of systemic change, we need to be taking those issues into consideration.

Ms BUTLER: Do you assist with any change of assessment matters?

Ms Morey : Yes.

Ms BUTLER: One of the submissions we have had has been critical of the way that change of assessment—not just one but more than one—applications are dealt with. Do you think that more information should be collected before a change of to the assessment decision is made?

Ms Morey : I cannot speak to the policies and processes, the ins and outs of why there were big changes to the way the agency, as it was back then, made some changes to the change of assessment process. One great benefit for us as practitioners and clients was that the 20-something page form was reduced to its current nine pages. My point here is that a lot of thought has been given and a lot of feedback has been provided to DHS about what is necessary for the department to have information about to make an appropriate change of assessment decision, based on the legislative framework but using their administrative powers. Reason 8 has always been and will always be a contentious reason. My personal opinion would be to keep the reason 8 broad as it is because of the nature of what that reason covers and the nature of, and in one of the terms of reference, the flexibility for families. There are so many different combinations of families, what they do for a living and their payment structures and salaries, that that reason should be broad and the information that the parents are then able to provide is up to them.

There should not be any rash change to the change of assessment process. If anything, perhaps some consideration could be given to the limitation period. Child support can only make a retrospective decision dating back a maximum of 18 months from the date the application is lodged. Even more so we are seeing clients are coming to us after being bounced from service to service, having tried to gain advice about their options. So 18 months a sound like a long period but it is not really. When we are looking at periods of assessments, going back only 18 months may not be sufficient. If either parent is seeking a change to an assessment that dates back more than 18 months, the problem is that their only option is court proceedings, which are prohibitive from many clients. Perhaps consideration needs to be given to that.

Ms BUTLER: On your view that reason 8 should be kept broad, is there any underpinning guidance, practice note or document that can assist in ensuring that there is some consistency in the way that it is applied and, if not, do you think that would be useful?

Ms Morey : On the change-of-assessment application form itself, there are very limited examples of what might be documentation that parents could provide, to support a reason 8 application, for example. And that gives parents some indication about what kinds of scenarios might fall within a reason 8 and therefore what documentation to provide. I would not rule out any particular practice note or further directions being made, but my hesitation with that would be if that then became interpreted as 'prescriptive'. I would worry for clients who are navigating the system themselves—and the system is designed for parents to do that. If they do not get legal advice that it is not prescriptive, and you have these options, we may see more parents falling through the gaps. I would not rule out such a suggestion but I would tread very cautiously.

Ms BUTLER: I appreciate it is broad and needs to stay broad, because you cannot anticipate every possible scenario. I appreciate that point. The question is: there must be some scenarios that happen frequently. One example that has been given to us is that of how to take into account an asset that is big on paper but the person has a low income—possibly a farmer. Could there be in a guidance note, a practice note, some general principles, around how that situation might be treated, without trying to prescribe what the outcome would be, so there is sufficient flexibility?

Ms Morey : To try to answer that question, my reservations would still be the same in that if you have a self-represented party reading such a practice note they may misinterpret as to whether or not that is prescriptive and therefore, if they think it is, they will not bother with the process to begin with. That would be a worry for us.

Ms BUTLER: The issue of the way that the Social Security Appeals Tribunal operates has been raised. I do not know if you were here earlier when we were talking about it. Would you reform the SSAT's child support division and, if so, in what way?

Ms Morey : The short answer is: no. I only heard briefly the last gentleman's submissions, so I do not understand fully the context perhaps in which he raised it. Broadly, in relation to evidence, it is an important distinction that the tribunal, not a court, be able to be a bit more directive, a bit more flexible, not involve the lawyers in these tribunal proceedings, and have parties be able to present their case and have it heard and, if they have not produced all the relevant documentation that would assist the tribunal member in making their decision, then it stands to reason that the tribunal member should be able to ask the parties for particular documents—evidence, if you will. It is within the ambit of the tribunal member to make an adverse inference that if a particular document that has been requested, that would substantiate allegations or claims such as the existence of bank accounts, property et cetera, and that document has not been produced and seems to be in existence somewhere, then they should be able to make an adverse inference and make a decision. If the person adversely affected by that decision disagreed with the decision of the tribunal, they can already, within the scope of the system, appeal to the Federal Circuit Court on an error in law. That could be as broad as an error in law being that they have not been afforded procedural fairness. The natural justice issue. That already exists. I guess what I would say—

CHAIR: I would challenge that, because I have heard too many cases to the contrary. You say 'procedural fairness' but, in fact, it is not that they do not go down to that level and look at the evidence that has been shown or not shown or the evidence that perhaps was not supplied, it is a matter of whether the procedure was done right. And if it was done right, then the decision is upheld. I do not know that there have been too many instances to the contrary.

Ms BUTLER: To be fair, the High Court says that a failure to afford natural justice is an error of law. You can appeal to the court on the basis of an error of law. Everyone who has spoken to us has conceded that.

CHAIR: Good luck with the average person getting to the High Court.

Ms BUTLER: No, to the Federal Circuit Court.

CHAIR: Good luck to them getting there as well.

Ms Morey : That of itself highlights the issue. That is all the more reason, when we are talking about child support, that timely legal advice is crucial for parents trying to navigate this system, and appropriate referrals from parents who are accessing the grassroots-level front-line staff—either at Centrelink or child support—be referred early to get some legal advice so that they know what their options are, what documentation they might need to provide and what their future options might be.

Ms BUTLER: In terms of the ability to get legal support, I expect that the sort of assistance you provide is not necessarily available from legal aid commissions.

Ms Morey : From our service, we are a—

Ms BUTLER: Your clients would not necessarily be eligible for Legal Aid Commission support, and that is why they come to you.

Ms Morey : Broadly, yes. Because our service is such a specialised service dealing with domestic, family violence, sexual assault victims, we have been identified perhaps as a more appropriate service. Even if a client were eligible for legal aid, we may be the more appropriate service anyway. Our clients range from Centrelink recipients to middle-income earners, perhaps. It would depend. The point is, if there are services that can provide advice in relation to child-support issues, both administrative and court avenues, government should consider appropriate funding to those particular services to ensure that staff are trained in the relevant legislation and policies. It is a complex area that is fraught with many difficulties, and poor advice or non-timely advice exposes clients, on both sizes sides of the coin, to many risks.

Ms BUTLER: One of the concerns that has been raised with us is that the payer can effectively game the system by failing to put in a tax return and then put in three or four tax returns all at once, the most recent one being the lesser-income year. Do you have any experience that backs up that claim and, if so, what would you do about it?

Ms Morey : Yes, we have had experience with clients in those situations. I had a mother I was representing who was the payee parent, and the payer had not lodged his tax returns for seven years, and then he lodged them all at once. The problem is, although both parents, who are customers of the child-support system, are expected to lodge their tax returns on time, that is not enforced. If my memory recalls correctly, I think Professor Parkinson mentioned something similar. They are supposed to be lodging their tax returns on time, but not all parents do and that is not enforced. A suggestion would be that enforcement of those issues be looked at. The effect, of course, is that if upon lodging those tax returns a parent wishes to challenge the income that that parent has alleged to have earned, in that financial year, the current system only permits a parent to seek a change of assessment dating back a maximum of 18 months. For any of those other retrospective periods, the only way to seek a departure from those applications is court. Again, we have that same rigmarole of it being prohibitive. So better enforcement of lodging tax returns on time, for both parents, may be something to look at.

CHAI R: Is it correct that if there were several years they can only go back 18 months? I would seek advice from DHS on that because, if there were an amended tax return going back several years, I am pretty sure that it would impact on the debt.

Ms Morey : They certainly reconcile the periods; they seek to fix those assessment periods. In my understanding, that is something that that the child support system is supposed to fix. But the issue is that even after the reconciliation has occurred, if either parent wanted to seek a change to the assessment, they are prohibited from doing so because of the 18 months—so you are right. The reconciled income amounts and the assessments are fixed up, for want of a better word. But then after that has been done, if there are other reasons that you are seeking to change the assessment, you are prohibited from doing so.

CHAIR: What would be the other reasons that that could have been addressed within that period of time? It is not really related to the tax returns.

Ms Morey : For example, it could be that the declared income is lower than a parent perhaps has knowledge that the other parent actually earned—cash-in-hand jobs. They are the sorts of common scenarios that we might see. Again, if it falls outside that 18-month period, parents cannot seek to change it except to go to court.

CHAIR: I have a few questions. You mentioned the best interest of the child. I am just wondering how far you would want to take that. I am sure we would say that we want the child support system to be there in the best interests of the child, but let me pose a hypothetical to you. There may be allegations that a parent in receipt of child support payments is not spending that money in the best interests of the child but is spending it on something other than looking after the child and the child is being neglected. Should income management come into play? That would be the system operating in the best interest of the child.

Ms Loughman : I do not think that the child support system is about the contributions that both parents make to the support of the child. If there is a scenario like that, it is an issue around the welfare of the child. Is it an issue that needs to go to a different jurisdiction?

CHAIR: Yes, but we have income management with other forms of welfare where we suspect that money is not being spent appropriately, particularly with regard to looking after children. If we really wanted to take the best interest of the child to the fullest degree, would we look at this? Where there are allegations that may not have the full evidentiary basis but it is determined that there could be a problem, would we have child support income management put in place?

Ms Loughman : I think we would need to go very cautiously down that path. There would need to be a process whereby that is determined to be the case.

CHAIR: There has been the example of someone, for instance in the mining sector, who perhaps is earning $180,000 a year. They do the two weeks on, two weeks off shifts or whatever they do. They decide they are going to leave that employment and relocate—not for the care part of it but for the fact that they want to actually be more in their child's life attending sporting events and school events. They want to be more in their child's life. It is not considered by the child support system to be care; it is simply a decision that person has made. They relocate and take a job at much lesser pay, $60,000 or $70,000. If there were a change of assessment request, the Child Support Program then would deem they have the capacity to earn $180,000. The person then says 'Well, blow this; I am going to go back and earn the $180,000 because I cannot afford the child support payments based on my actual income of $60,000.' I would think that scenario is not in the best interest of the child either, given that for financial reasons imposed by the system a parent has been forced to not be able to attend all of those events that children want to see their parents attending. This is why the issue of income—reason 8 in the assessment—is so crucial for many people. There are very subjective views put in place that lead to all sorts of perverse outcomes. I want to know whether you think there should be, as Ms Butler indicated, much tighter guidelines around reason 8.

Ms Morey : Our position would be we would not be opposed to any further investigation of what could be put in place to assist parents and decision makers with how they make decisions around reason 8 issues. In that example you gave, I guess that particular parent may have other legal avenues to challenge that particular change of assessment decision, whether it be at court, through a response to the change of assessment SSAT et cetera. I suppose it would be something where we would consider what other options might be available. It would just be looking very carefully at any very strict approach to reason 8 that could lead parents to misinterpret what can and cannot be applied for under that reason.

CHAIR: Would the Women's Legal Services New South Wales be opposed to the concept of an appeal within the system or a modification to the Social Security Appeals Tribunal where there was a more evidence based hearing or tribunal that actually looked at the evidence that was provided rather than hearsay and allegations?

Ms Morey : My understanding of the SSAT is that substantial documentation already is required to support both parents' application and response in those proceedings. In relation to establishing a separate tribunal that perhaps is more in line with some kind of arbitration or something a little bit more stringent, I think that is probably something that falls outside what we could really comment on apart from saying that any mechanism that is available for parents that provides for the safety of women and children, that gives priority to adequate financial support for the children and their care arrangements and that tries to keep costs down for parents would of course be an option to look at.

CHAIR: On the issue of domestic violence: while that is not in our terms of reference, we are obviously hearing this evidence as a committee because it is part of the framework on which the whole child support system operates. They certainly already have the domestic violence policies in place. I want to get an understanding. I assume it is because your organisation mainly deals with victims of domestic violence, but you do have a belief that not the majority of people engaged with the child support are victims of domestic violence, right?

Ms Morey : I do not think we can comment on statistics. I do not know numbers. All we can comment on is in our experience. We have a vast number of women who approach our service for advice about family law matters. That includes child support. Those women identify as being victims of violence. That is really the extent to which we could comment.

CHAIR: I think the statistics from the Department of Human Services would show that the majority have not reported that there has been domestic violence. I am not opposed to the establishment of a domestic violence unit. There might be some good solutions in that. We heard from the Council of Single Mothers yesterday. They had a particular view about how that should operate and what outcomes that would achieve, but what does the Women's Legal Services New South Wales think would be achieved by greater recognition of domestic violence or the establishment of a domestic violence unit within the child support system?

Ms Loughman : Domestic violence is recognised for the purposes of an exemption from seeking maintenance. I will ask Alira to help me out here if I get technically off track. For parents who are seeking to engage in the child support system where they have experienced domestic violence, that is where we see it as really important that it be identified, well responded to and has the potential for systems abuse recognised so that that can be observed and managed through the process.

There is the risk for unjust and unsafe outcomes where there is domestic and family violence. For example, if we encourage more mediation then there are risks around that. We hear stories of protracted processes through child support that take a long period of time where there are persistent applications for change of assessment and appeals. Of course people need to be afforded procedural fairness around that, but we also think it is important that decision makers are aware that they are or are not dealing with a case where there is a history of domestic violence and that that be something that is brought to that case as a consideration.

CHAIR: With regard to the greater training you have recommended be given to DHS staff regarding identifying victims of domestic violence: if the training kicked in and they were hearing someone they thought was a victim of domestic violence, would your view be that that person must admit that they had been a victim of domestic violence before or identify as a victim of domestic violence before it is noted? How would that be done?

Ms Morey : In our experience, quite often victims of domestic violence—particularly long-term domestic violence—will not ring up and say, 'I have been a victim of violence.' What we hear is their story, so the training would be being able to sift through their words such as, 'I have no idea what he earned, because when we were together he just managed and controlled all the finances.' That might be an example that might trigger the DHS staff member to think, 'Okay, are there any issues of financial control at play here?' and then work through some sort of screening and risk assessment to see whether there might be other forms of coercive controlling or violence that could be relevant in terms of what happens next to protect those victims of violence.

CHAIR: Alright. I will leave it at that.

Ms CLAYDON: I know we have gone way over time, so sorry about that. Are you flagging this issue about the need for additional training of front-line child support workers because you have some concerns that there are victims of family violence falling through?

Ms Loughman : Yes.

Ms CLAYDON: I just want to get that on the record that that is indeed your concern there.

There have been some issues raised with us around the issue of private collect versus the agency collect. I note that you have some concerns that, at least in some instances for victims of violence, they may be in a sense settling for a private collect that might not be in their best interests or the best interests of the child, which is probably the most important aspect here. You have suggested that Centrelink should be encouraging their clients to seek legal advice at the earliest possible moment about determining whether private or agency collectors will suit their particular circumstances. In an ideal world, Centrelink would be implementing that, would have it up, would have fabulously trained front-line staff identifying victims of family violence and then would seek to refer people to get some legal advice. I am wondering what avenues, if any, are currently available for parents to get that sort of advice on what is going to be the most suitable arrangement for them. How timely and efficiently is that working? Where would they turn to? What is the system now?

Ms Morey : I cannot really provide an answer in terms of what is currently happening everywhere at Centrelinks all across the country, but what I can certainly say is that in my experience I have worked with some great social workers at Centrelink who have referred clients to us. Social workers at Centrelink are the people who are probably best placed in terms of front-line staff to be spending the time to talk with parents accessing Centrelink about what their family situation is and to identify other appropriate avenues for referral. We have certainly had very appropriate referrals to our service from Centrelink social workers.

The reason we are recommending more training across all front-line staff is that anecdotally, in our experience, it is hit and miss which social workers or front-line staff at which Centrelink location clients go to. They will get different advice and different referrals. Trying to streamline a more comprehensive understanding of what domestic and family violence is and appropriate referrals would be what we hope to achieve. In terms of who might be best placed for them to refer to: community legal centres are able to provide advice over the telephone.

Ms CLAYDON: I know the community legal centres and services in my own area are already fabulously overstretched, underresourced and facing particularly big challenges. If you are to increase that referral service—and I can certainly see the good sense of that—are there enough avenues for services like you to do that?

CHAIR: Can we take that on notice?

Ms CLAYDON: I am happy to have it on notice.

Ms Loughman : The short answer is no.

Ms Morey : More funding is always good.

CHAIR: You don't need to take it on notice then! I know you have a submission there; but, if there are questions that remain unanswered—

Ms Loughman : Sure.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your appearance here.