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Thursday, 14 June 1984
Page: 3023

Senator CROWLEY —My question is addressed to the Attorney-General. I have seen reports in today's papers about proposed industrial action by Family Court of Australia counsellors. Is the Attorney-General aware of the concerns that have led Family Court counsellors to begin a campaign of rolling stoppages? What is the Government's attitude to these concerns?

Senator GARETH EVANS —Yes, I am familiar with what is happening with the Family Court counsellors. I make it clear at the outset that I am very sympathetic to their position and very appreciative, as is the Government, of the work done by them which is absolutely central to the success of the Family Court. We recognise the dedication with which they approach that difficult and demanding work. They play a great role in assisting the move towards conciliation and the pre-court resolution of marital disputes, a role which is expanded with the recent amendments to the Family Law Act passed by this chamber earlier this year . As such their position is very well understood.

I have written to the Professional Officers Association today setting out the Government's position on the matters that concern the Association, acting as it is on behalf of the counsellors. In the letter I say that I am willing to meet them to discuss the issues in question. I will as briefly as possible describe what some of those issues are and the nature of the Government's response to them. The Public Service Board and the Attorney-General's Department have recently completed a review of the court counsellor structure and a number of improvements have been made. Many of the changes do accord with submissions made by the POA. It is proposed that there be a review of the Board's decisions on classifications and numbers in the light of operational experience. There are a number of matters that have been raised by the Association concerned with the safety of court counsellors and four other major concerns relating respectively to classification of positions, supervision of outlying registries, career structures and members.

The main central issue and overriding concern is the pressure on counselling resources and in particular the backlogs in clients' access to counsellors. Anything more than short delays in obtaining access to counselling services is obviously counter-productive. I again repeat that I fully understand the Association's concern in this respect. We are regularly kept informed of the delays that are occurring in various registries. We are closely monitoring those delays and doing our best to overcome them. However, I think it has to be emphasised that we are operating in a financial and staffing environment which is quite significantly less than ideal. The staffing needs of the Family Court at various levels are verging on the critical, not only in the counselling area. I am presently engaged in pre-Budget discussions aimed at securing some degree of relief for the situation. I and the Government are firmly committed to the objective of staffing the Family Court to the level necessary for it to discharge all its vitally important social functions. It is a pity, but I do not think that can be achieved overnight. I think the matters raised by the counsellors could be appropriately considered in the review of the Board's decisions on classifications and numbers which is occurring. But I repeat that I am willing to meet with the counsellors' representatives to fully discuss their concerns.