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Monday, 30 May 2011
Page: 4992

Mrs BRONWYN BISHOP (Mackellar) (12:47): The Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill 2011 is an opportunity to place a spotlight on a whole range of issues that are not dealt with this in the bill. However, because of the way in which this bill has been constructed, what I am going to say is directly pertinent to it.

On 19 May, a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, said that the New South Wales 'top cop':

… is embarking on a personal crusade to tackle the hidden ''monster'' of child sexual abuse.

Spurred by a spike in the report of assaults, particularly those that occur behind the closed doors of family homes, the Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, has told the Herald the community can no longer afford to turn a blind eye.

Mr Scipione said:

This is a monster that is eating at the very heart of our society and we cannot afford to pretend that it's not happening.

…   …   …

Published material is limited by legal obligations preventing the identification of victims. In the case of incest, identifying the offending family member would also identify the child.

Last week there was a rally in front of Parliament House. The rally was held by Rally for Children's Safety, an alliance of community groups, to highlight research that has been done on the way in which children who may have been abused are dealt with under family law. For a long time, I have advocated that we need to again allow the press back into the family law courts. When I say 'again' that is misleading—they have never been allowed in. For many people the family law court has become a very dark place. Under its rules you may not talk or publish about it. Worse than that: it is the only court in the land which the press may not attend. As I said, I have made this statement loud and clear to all parts of society, because I believe that when you shut the press out a court can become a dark place. As I said, for many people it has become a dark place, and I think we need to let the light in.

Like other members, I have constituents who come into my office and tell stories about how their children have been taken away from them. Recently, the number of mothers who come into my office exceeds the number of fathers, but it does not preclude fathers. I also have fathers who come in needing justice.

The report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs, in December 2003, Every picture tells a story, from which the 2006 reforms were put in place, advocated most strongly that family court business be referred to a tribunal and that a tribunal deal with most of the business that now comes before the family courts and that the family courts have a restricted jurisdiction. That recommendation was not taken up, but other recommendations were. I was part of the coalition party room that said we needed to do this. Professor Parkinson was also very involved. He was on radio the other day pointing out that so much more needs to be done—far beyond the extent of what is in this bill. I stress the importance of the inquiry that is currently going on in the Senate. I note that a reference was attempted to be made to a relevant House of Representatives committee, but that committee refused to take that reference because of the inquiry already going on in the Senate. The Senate committee was originally meant to report in July—I think it was on 23 July—but I note that they have now extended that until August. It is an inquiry which is attracting many submissions from people who see that the way in which the court currently operates does not meet the needs of children in particular.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies, while doing a review of the 2006 reforms, found that 60 per cent of separated parents were in a friendly or cooperative relationship. Most separated parents are able to make parenting arrangements with little use of family law services or lawyers; however, for families where complex issues such as family violence, family safety issues, mental illness and substance addiction exists there is a high use of family relationships services, courts and lawyers.

I refer to an inquiry I chaired back in 2006 that looked into the impact of illicit drugs on families. I found that in any one year in excess of 266,000 complaints are made about the abuse of children. I know that today we have 35,000 children who are in out-of-home care. This great concern was echoed in the words of Commissioner Scipione when he spoke strongly about the need for us to be aware that there are such things as family violence and family abuse of children:

Defying common misconceptions about 'stranger danger', many had to share a dinner table and bathroom with their abuser …

That is a terrifying prospect. There is a need to investigate those allegations when they arise. Professor Parkinson, who has been very much involved in the issues of family break-ups and dealing with the welfare of children, said on 25 May in an interview with Fran Kelly on ABC radio:

There's much more we could be doing to improve the system in terms of protecting kids and in protecting victims of violence … However, it requires resources and it requires services. Changing the Act only changes the margins because most cases are decided without a Judge. About 93per cent of cases are resolved without the Judge giving a judgement. Changing how Judges decide cases concerns only seven per cent of all the cases in the family law system. While these changes help, they don't really make a huge difference. What would make a huge difference is to have resources for investigation and assessment at an early stage of the process.

There does seem to be a real problem in getting evidence into the Family Court when allegations are made. Because of the closed nature of the court, we are unable to see patterns or reasons given. Often much of what happens in the court is not reflected in the transcript. So I think there is a desperate need to open up the courts like every other court. I think we learnt that from the court of Star Chamber, all those centuries ago, when it became a place of abused justice. It should have awakened us to the fact that we should never have imposed a ban on the press being allowed into the family law court. I am not suggesting for a moment that names should be published or that people should be photographed or identified. What I am saying is that cases should be able to be reported on if the names of the individuals concerned are suppressed. Then we could perhaps start to see patterns in the way the court operates and maybe we could see the need for change. Rather than having an assessment of what has happened after the event we could see what is happening in real time.

In speaking to this bill I want to make two very strong points. I want to make the point that children in the current situation are in a position of danger. If you read some of the submissions to the Senate inquiry and you read the stories of heartbreak, you know that something needs to be done. If you read the analysis that we are only dealing with a small percentage of people who have marriage breakdowns and manage to cope, we are dealing with a relatively small percentage—seven per cent. If you listen to those on the front line—like Commissioner Scipione, like the Benevolent Society who says there is a desperate need for more reform, or like Professor Parkinson who says that we need to go further—then the current Senate inquiry is very important.

As the committee begins its public hearings and as we hear stories, I think we have to open our minds and say that we always have to be on the lookout for ways in which we can protect children. They are our most precious gift. We can look at the stories of young adults who have come out of abusive households. We can look at children who have been sexualised because of various practices which have unfortunately happened in the family home. These could have happened for all sorts of reasons, from mental illness through to drug and alcohol abuse; certainly, many of those were instanced in the inquiry that I chaired. We cannot have a closed mind and say, 'One solution is the solution for all time.' We have to keep looking at it. Most importantly, the plea I make today is the one that I have been making for a long time to a vast number of people, some of whom hopefully will pick it up: we need to open the family law court to allow the press in and allow the light to shine on what many parents feel is presently a very dark place.