Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Pathways: better connections for families, policy and service development.\nFamily Services Australia National Conference 2002, Darwin.

Download PDFDownload PDF

Attorney-General The Hon Daryl Williams AM QC

October 2002

Pathways - Better Connections for Families, Policy and Service Development Family Services Australia National Conference 2002 All Seasons Premier Darwin Central Hotel, Darwin 9.30am, Thursday 10 October 2002


I am happy to be here today to discuss the important issue of helping to forge better connections both within Australian families and between families and the services that support them. Parliamentary Secretary Ross Cameron was to have represented the Family and Community Services Minister Amanda Vanstone this morning - Senator Vanstone is currently overseas. Unfortunately, he has been struck low by a health problem and is unable to attend today.

An effective, compassionate and responsive family law system is important to all Australians. It is important to the people who are experiencing the trauma and stress of family breakdown. It is important to the Government and to the service providers who support them. And it is important to the development of a harmonious and prosperous community.

The Government has for some time recognised that we need to develop a more coordinated approach to helping families in distress. When families begin to break down, they need access to clear information and support as soon as possible.

However, the available services are provided by a large number of different agencies and this can make it difficult for families to know where to go. For these reasons the Howard Government established the Family Law Pathways Advisory Group in May 2000.

The group was asked to advise the Government on a number of matters. This included how to better coordinate services, improve information and support for families, and how to help families minimise conflict and access the right sort of help at an early stage.

The advisory group's report Out of the Maze - Pathways to the Future for Families Experiencing Separation was launched in August last year.

Today I want to discuss the Pathways Report - where we are up to and what it means for the family law system.

The Pathways Report

The Pathways Report made it clear that there were real and significant problems with the family law system.

It found that there was too much unnecessary litigation and adversarial behaviour. And there was not enough follow-up support available for people to implement the agreements and court orders that were made.

Not surprisingly, the report found that there was not enough encouragement for people to reach agreement or emphasis on ongoing parenting. This situation was compounded by the inability of the system to respond, and adapt to, changes in relationships and family circumstances.

The report also found a lack of collaboration between family law services and not enough information available to help people make informed choices. This failure of coordination and information made it difficult for families to identify the services that

were available and to then choose the services that met their needs.

Another finding was that the public and private costs imposed by this system were simply too high.

Government Response

Of course the Pathways Report did more than just point out the gaps in the system.

It made a number of recommendations to address these problems. The Government has already indicated that we support the broad thrust of those recommendations.

A taskforce of Commonwealth agencies has been established to consider the advisory group's findings. This work is still underway - although I am informed that the taskforce is making good progress. In the meantime, the Government is acting in a number of different areas that address key issues identified in the report.

The reform of the family law system is a complex issue. I assure you that it is an issue that I consider to be of the highest importance. The Government remains firmly committed to the reform process and we will respond to the advisory group in a meaningful and substantive way. But the fact is that achieving good policy outcomes takes time.

In essence there are three key areas that we must address if we are to respond effectively to the findings in the Pathways Report. We must establish a family law system that is integrated and coordinated. We must shift the focus away from litigation, towards earlier and non-adversarial dispute resolution. And most importantly we must always put the needs and interests of children first.

An Integrated Family Law System

A more integrated system is essential if we are to be fully effective in the way we help families in distress.

When families break down, people are under enormous stress and pressure. They need understanding and support. And they need help to resolve their problems quickly and to move forward with their lives.

No-one's circumstances are exactly the same. People may need help with parenting or with conflict resolution. They may need help with emotional difficulties or with

issues such as physical violence and abuse. They may need help with legal problems or with the day to day issues of finding a house and getting a job.

To meet this diversity of needs an equally diverse range of support services has evolved.

There are relationship education, parenting education and financial counselling services. There are therapeutic counselling, mediation, conciliation, health and welfare and legal services. And there are child support administration, supported child contact and judicial determination services.

I have the highest regard for the quality of all of these services. And I know that the enthusiasm and dedication of the people who provide them is of the highest order. However, there is no denying that these services have developed in a piecemeal and unstructured manner.

As a result, people find it difficult to know what services are available and they find it even harder to work out which service will best meet their needs.

We need to develop better connections between all service providers. This includes creating links between providers such as medical practitioners and schools, which we do not usually consider part of the family law system.

Greater collaboration between and integration of such services will ensure that families are provided with consistent and clear information and support as soon as possible.

It is this integration and coordination that families want and need. And it is our task to work toward a system that is responsive to their needs.

Better Dispute Resolution

The Government's approach to family law has always been to shift the focus away from litigation and towards earlier, non-adversarial services such as counselling and mediation. Our goal is to make the family law system more responsive to families in need by making it easier for them to reach early agreement.

The Government is already a strong supporter of non-adversarial dispute resolution processes. We are funding a range of new primary dispute resolution programs in rural and regional areas. We are giving legal aid commissions additional funds to increase and improve the primary dispute resolution services they offer to clients. And we have funded professional development programs for mediators and lawyers in

an attempt to increase the focus on children in dispute resolution processes.

Despite these initiatives, I understand that approximately 40 per cent of people entering the family law system make their first contact with a legal services provider or a court. This compares with just 20 per cent whose first contact is with a counselling organisation.

It is clear from these figures that more work needs to be done to encourage people to use non-adversarial options

Importance of Children

Whatever reforms we make - and whatever the intellectual debate about the family law system - we must always remember that our decisions directly affect the lives and well-being of thousands of Australians. And we are making decisions that affect the well-being and future prospects of our children. We must always remember that family law is about people. And we must always put the interests of children before all other considerations.

Social Coalition

In trying to achieve the objectives I have mentioned, it is important to recognise that the Government does not control or manage the family law system. And we certainly don't have all the answers. Meaningful and lasting reforms will only be achieved if everyone involved in the system works together. It follows that an effective and practical response to the Pathways Report will only be achieved if all players in the system work together and embrace the reform process.

We need to establish a social coalition that is determined to create a better family law system. This means pooling our ideas, resources and talents to achieve a common goal. It also means paying attention to, and meeting, our own individual responsibilities.

In this context I urge you all to take the time to read the report, which is available on the Attorney-General's Department website. And I ask you to consider what implications the report may have for you, for your agency and for the services that you provide.

Need for Ongoing Commitment

As well as working together, we also need to demonstrate perseverance and long-term commitment to a better family law system.

A truly integrated system will not happen overnight. It requires a concerted effort over an extended period.

As we draw closer to our goal, we will also need to consider how we are going to maintain the new system.

Vigilance and a lasting commitment to reform and improvement is essential if we are to maintain a system that will respond and adapt to the changing needs and demands of Australian families.

Bridging the Divides

The lack of coordination and integration in the family law system is largely caused by service providers thinking of themselves as separate and unrelated rather than as integral elements of a larger system.

We must remember that people may need a mix of services. And that mix may vary depending upon the status of their relationships.

A clear example of the way we tend to categorise services is the way we tend to think of lawyers and social scientists.

Too often people see the services provided by these two groups as unrelated. The role of lawyers is seen to be solving legal problems while social scientists are there to pick up the emotional pieces.

We all know that this is a simplistic approach.

Lawyers do much more than solve legal problems. They are a source of general advice and information for their clients and, if for no other reason than that they are the first to be contacted, they often serve as managers of people's pathways through

the family law system.

Similarly, it is misleading to say that social scientists are there simply to handle the emotional issues. Social scientists are intimately involved in assisting people to resolve what were once seen as "legal" disputes. It would be naive to think that the emotional issues that people experience when they go through family breakdown could ever be dealt with in isolation from the legal and physical circumstances in which they find themselves.

Both are integral components of a holistic suite of services that address the needs of people experiencing family breakdown.

No doubt there are some lawyers and some social scientists who mistakenly think they are capable of meeting all of their clients' needs and who do not see the need to refer their clients to other services. I hope they are an increasingly rare breed.

Most lawyers today recognise the important role that community support services such as education, counselling and dispute resolution can play. They know that if their clients can reach agreement between themselves the agreement is likely to be more workable and therefore more lasting and beneficial for any children that are involved.

Improving Information and Awareness

For these reasons many lawyers were enthusiastic users of the Family Court's pre-filing conciliation counselling service.

Unfortunately, with the Family Court's reduction of its 'conciliation counselling' services, there does not appear to have been a corresponding increase in the number of referrals from lawyers to services in community-based agencies.

Lawyers appear to be less familiar with the range of services provided by community-based organisations.

While there is no doubt lawyers have a responsibility to find out what they can about the range of services available to assist their clients, we all know that, in a busy working life, that can be difficult to do.

The Attorney-General's Department is working with the Law Council to identify ways to help lawyers to find out more about the available community-based services and to encourage them to refer their clients to those services.

But the responsibility should not be entirely one-sided. If we are to move towards a truly integrated family law system, we all have a responsibility to address any divisions that may exist between different service types. From that perspective, I

encourage you all to give thought to how you can better inform the legal profession and the courts about the services you provide and when it is appropriate to refer clients to them.

Building on Existing Initiatives

There are many things that we can do to create a better family law system and to address concerns raised by the Family Law Pathways Advisory Group. The Government's formal response to the Pathways Report will be an important part of

that process. But it would be wrong to think that the Government is doing nothing in the meantime.

We are already pursuing a number of initiatives that will serve as a solid foundation for future improvements to the family law system.

Partnership Projects

To advance the ideal of a more integrated system of service provision the Government has funded seven Partnership Projects.

These projects trial various models of collaborative service delivery. They are providing us with valuable information about the obstacles to cooperation, and identifying opportunities for greater cooperation and more seamless referrals between different service providers. To ensure that the valuable lessons we learn from these

projects are not lost, the Attorney-General's Department will prepare an issues paper for public release after the projects finish next June.

Enhancement of Australian Law Online / Family Law Online

Australian Law Online is another initiative that helps people - especially those in regional Australia - to navigate their way through the family law system.

Australian Law Online has the potential to be developed into a virtual 'one-stop' shop for information about the family law system.

I look forward to a time when members of the public and professionals will be able to access online the full range of information about the family law system and family law services. They will be able to do this irrespective of whether they enter the system through Australian Law Online or through a particular service provider's website. And we are making solid progress towards this goal.

Over the next few months the Family Law Online website will be upgraded to permit people to search the information on it directly from partner websites. For the first time, members of the public will be able to search for and find comprehensive information about the family law system without the need to navigate through a confusing maze of different websites.

In March, the Attorney-General's Department also introduced a new web-based tool to enable service providers such as Family Services Australia agencies to directly view and update the information about their services on Family Law Online.

Technology is not the only answer to better information and better coordination. But it is a convenient and accessible way for people to find out about the services that are available. The Government is determined to ensure that we make the most of the possibilities and opportunities that new technologies offer.

Review of PDR provisions in the Family Law Act

It is also important that the primary dispute resolution provisions in the Family Law Act 1975 are working appropriately. Accordingly, I have asked my Department to conduct a review of the provisions in Part III of the Family Law Act 1975.

The aim of this review is to improve the clarity, workability and flexibility of the provisions.

In particular, the review will consider the extent to which the provisions are consistent with current best practice in dispute resolution and with other elements of the family law system and the wider legal system.

Quality Framework for PDR Providers

It is also important that primary dispute resolution services are accessible and of a consistently high quality.

To ensure this quality is achieved and maintained, the Government proposes to develop a quality framework for counsellors and mediators who provide PDR services under the Family Law Act.

A quality framework would ensure that all primary dispute resolution services offered under the Family Law Act are of high quality and are accessible.

It would bring consistency to the treatment of counsellors and mediators, irrespective of whether they are Government funded or not, and provide a transparent mechanism under which counsellors and mediators may obtain authorisation under the Family Law Act.

A consultation paper proposing such a quality framework was released in October last year. The feedback we received was quite clear. The concept of regulating PDR is a good one and some form of quality assurance is definitely needed. The challenge for the Government is to provide the necessary regulation without falling into the trap of over-regulating and stifling the sector's growth and innovation.

The Attorney-General's Department will establish a reference group shortly that will consult widely on the development of a quality framework.


Clearly a great deal of work is already underway to reform the family law system. Much of this work addresses some of the central concerns raised by the Family Law Pathways Advisory group.

But we cannot afford to be complacent. The Pathways Report makes it quite clear that there is more to be done and more to be achieved. The challenges are clear.

We must foster better linkages and communication between all the players in the family law system. This is particularly important in relation to common assessment and referral processes.

We must shift the focus away from litigation. To do this we need to foster the earlier, non-adversarial resolution of disputes.

Finally, and most importantly, we must develop child-focussed practices that recognise the needs and interests of children who are caught up in the trauma of family breakdown.

An integrated, non-adversarial and child-focussed family law system is not something that can be achieved quickly. Nevertheless I am confident that, with your cooperation and support, it will be achieved.

The services that we are providing improve the lives of Australians and they support children, who are the most vulnerable parties in any family breakdown. I can think of no more important task than making our family law system work to its potential. And

I look forward to the Government continuing its positive and productive relationship with the wide range of players in this sector.