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Thursday, 24 March 2011
Page: 3140


Mr McCLELLAND (Attorney-General) (9:57 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill 2011 addresses a matter of paramount concern to the Australian community.

It is about the safety of our children.

This bill seeks to protect children and families within the family law system from family violence and child abuse.

Introduction

Children are the most vulnerable members of our community.

Most children thrive in happy and cohesive families who put the best interests of their children first. Unfortunately, some children are not so lucky and experience significant conflict, fear, isolation and harm.

Their experiences often occur within the confines of the family home and involve trusted family members. Conflict often escalates during family breakdown increasing the risk to these children.

Often there are strong intergenerational effects.

I cannot accept that it is in any way proper or moral or beneficial to allow a child to suffer, to witness or hear, or to learn about violence.

Plainly, I am sure all members will agree, the opposite is true.

As a government, we cannot tolerate family violence or child abuse in any form.

Evidence base for the legislative reforms

The damaging effects of family violence and child abuse have been recorded in a range of reports commissioned by the government in recent years.

In an evaluation of the 2006 family law reforms released by the government last year, the Australian Institute of Families Studies (AIFS) found that two-thirds of separated mothers and over half of separated fathers reported experiencing abuse, either emotional or physical, by the other parent.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies also found that one in five separated parents surveyed reported safety concerns associated with ongoing contact with their child’s other parent.

A report by the Family Law Council highlights data that victims of family violence receive more psychiatric treatment and have an increased incidence of attempted suicide and alcohol abuse than the general population. Violence is also a significant cause of homelessness.

These are disturbing findings.

Perhaps more importantly, various research reports by leading social scientists and academics clearly show that exposure to family violence and child abuse leads to poor developmental outcomes for children.

Former Family Court judge, the Hon. Professor Richard Chisholm AM, in his Family courts violence review, identified the importance of disclosing, understanding and acting where there is family violence.

Professor Chisholm has stated that many families before the Family Court face the victim’s dilemma: ‘Do I report family violence to the court and risk losing my children, or should I stay silent?’

It is unacceptable that our laws place people in this predicament.

There is no dilemma for this government.

This bill will help to break those ghastly silences by encouraging disclosure of family violence; it will improve the understanding of what family violence is by clearly setting out the types of behaviour that are unacceptable; and it will ensure that appropriate action is taken to prioritise the safety of children.

Key features of the bill

The Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill will positively address family violence and child abuse in the family law system.

The bill will amend the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) to promote safer parenting arrangements for children.

Firstly, the bill will prioritise the safety of children in family law proceedings.

This government continues to support shared care and a child’s right to a meaningful relationship with both parents. However, where family violence or abuse is a concern, the courts will be required to prioritise the safety of the child over maintaining a meaningful relationship with each parent.

The act will include an additional object to give effect to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which decision-makers may have regard when dealing with children’s matters under the Family Law Act.

Second, the bill will change the definitions of ‘family violence’ and ‘abuse’ to better capture harmful behaviour. Family violence takes many forms and can affect any family member, be it adult or child, male or female.

The definition of family violence is consistent with the recommendations of the Australian and New South Wales Law Reform Commissions, and I thank them for their valuable work. Behaviour such as assault, sexual assault, stalking, emotional and psychological abuse, and economic abuse are explicitly referenced in this definition.

The definition of abuse in relation to a child will include serious psychological harm as a result of exposure to family violence, and also serious neglect.

This is a vital first step in helping the family law system to identify these problems and to respond appropriately to them.

Third, the bill will strengthen the obligations of lawyers, family dispute resolution practitioners, family consultants and family counsellors to prioritise the safety of children.

Under the proposed reforms, advisers must encourage families, in reaching parenting arrangements, to focus on the best interests of the child and in doing so to prioritise the wellbeing and right to safety of their children.

Fourth, the bill will ensure that courts get the information they need to make safe parenting arrangements.

To this end:

  • courts dealing with children’s matters will have to ask the parties to proceedings about family violence and child abuse;
  • parties will have to report their concerns about those matters to the courts;
  • other people interested in the proceedings will be able to make similar reports to the courts;
  • courts will be relieved of considering the extent to which a parent is ‘friendly’, according to the current definitions; and
  • families will no longer need to fear being saddled with a costs order for reporting family violence to the courts.

With all relevant information being made available, the courts can ensure that parenting orders will protect children from harm.

Finally, the bill will make it easier for Commonwealth, state and territory child welfare agencies to participate in family law proceedings.

Public support for the bill

The measures proposed in this bill have received overwhelming support from the community and bodies and professionals working in the family law system, and I note many representatives of those organisations are in the House today.

Over 400 submissions were received in public consultation conducted between November 2010 and January 2011.

A massive 73 per cent of people making submissions supported measures proposed in the exposure draft bill. Another 10 per cent made no comment on the bill but offered information about their personal experience.

The government have taken account of all submissions that were received in the public consultation and we have refined the measures that are proposed today in light of that process.

Part of the reason the bill has received such support is because it keeps in place key reforms that encourage meaningful relationships between parents and their children where they are safe.

Various research reports have found that shared care generally works well where the parents have little conflict, can cooperate, and live relatively close together.

This government supports creating happier, healthier outcomes for children.

Other nonlegislative measures

In addition to this bill, the government is taking other actions to combat family violence and child abuse, which I will briefly mention.

Substantial inroads will continue to be made through:

  • the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020 which was developed under the auspices of the Council of Australian Governments;
  • the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022, again, recently endorsed by Commonwealth, state and territory governments;
  • the development of a national scheme for recognition of domestic violence orders across Australian jurisdictions under the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General;
  • a training package designed to equip mediators, family counsellors and lawyers to better identify family violence and to work with families to keep children safe;
  • piloting a supportive model of family dispute resolution for safe mediation where violence is present; and also
  • establishing a common framework to assess and screen for violence within the family law system.

Technical amendments

The bill also includes a number of technical and procedural amendments to the Family Law Act and also to the Bankruptcy Act 1966. These will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of family law proceedings generally, and correct certain anomalies.

Conclusion

In conclusion, introducing this bill is one of the more poignant moments in my time as first law officer of the Commonwealth of Australia.

The Australian public and hardworking members of the family law system have spoken overwhelmingly in support of the bill.

Family violence and child abuse are too common in separating families.

It is a time for honourable members of this parliament to confront these disturbing issues and to make a difference that is long overdue. I commend this bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Turnbull) adjourned.