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Monday, 26 November 2018
Page: 11426


Ms HUSAR (Lindsay) (18:14): It's great to follow my colleague the member for Macquarie. She makes a very poignant point about the people whose lives have been lost through the Family Court system. In 1996, on the steps of the Parramatta Family Court, Jean Lennon was murdered by her then husband or ex-partner after they had been in the Family Court. We are not talking about something that is owed or deserves a tick-and-flick mentality.

I rise today in complete opposition to the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bill 2018. Anyone who has had any experience with the family law courts would agree that the need for reformation is significant, desperately required and overdue. However, there is absolutely no way that what this government has presented to us is anywhere close to the reform that we need. A generalist solution to some of the most complex legal issues facing our country will only cause greater risks for the children and families, like Jean Lennon, who are subjected to proceedings. The need for significant reform is great. Tinkering around the edges and taking a piecemeal approach is not good enough and will further risk the childhoods and the lives of those who are caught up.

Labor members on this side of the House know how important the family courts are for protection and the outcomes for families who need it. It was Gough Whitlam and his government, after all, who in 1975 created the act, and since then it has remained unchanged with the exception of very minor amendments. Australian families now, though, look very different from how they looked in 1975. We have moved beyond those cultural and societal norms of families, and families today are made up of many different factors. We also now have a new epidemic flooring some families who find themselves needing the help of the Family Law Courts: domestic violence.

Of course, it's not a new problem at all. It has existed for generations, but society has changed and formed the view that we no longer see domestic violence as a private matter. In 2017 the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs conducted an inquiry into family law and family violence and how the two are intersecting. I note that one of the members of this parliament who worked on that is sitting here at the desk. None of the 33 recommendations from our report have been actioned, none of the advice presented acknowledged and none of the committee's work—those people who gave evidence—supported. These recommendations were ignored by this government, yet they talk a big game when it comes to protecting those people who have found themselves on the receiving end of violence against women and the need to help and support women and children.

Instead of acting on any of the recommendations, we find ourselves here, debating tinkering with a very complex system, and debating defunding a system whose entire jurisdiction is to support children who find themselves between parents who are at war. We know that not all family breakdowns end up before the Family Court needing such intervention, and I want to put on record my absolute applause for those adults who break up reasonably, respectfully and in a child-focused manner, recognising that, just because adult parties cannot make a relationship work, it should not mean the children in that relationship should suffer.

When parents need the intervention, our system should be responsive. It should support the children and support them in a way that responds to their needs. The backlogs in the Family Court are causing serious issues and creating dangerous and painful situations for those who are stuck in the system. The solution is not to wipe out the entire system. It needs investment, it needs reform and it needs urgent attention. The delays are costing families huge sums of money and causing swathes of distress, and kids are being punished by having their lives placed in limbo by the ongoing delays.

Take a family who has a child who is four years old. They break up. Custody over that child is contested. The child at some point over the next two years has to enrol in kindergarten, but the parents can't agree. They go back to court, each swearing an affidavit, each having representation, each facing costs. The court and the judge—a person who is not an expert on this child—make a decision in their life. That child now faces being seven or eight years old in the current system before their matter is completely resolved and they have any certainty over their lives. That is a quarter of that little person's childhood forever drained from their life because this government cannot be bothered to address the delays that we now see.

Our court officers, judges and those who work in the family system need to be shown more respect by this government and have their work valued and supported, not relegated to a cost-saving exercise. This legislation that is proposed by this hapless, incompetent government who fail to see the importance of family law in our society will leave families in further crisis. I have risen a number of times in this House to bring this to the parliament's attention—to no avail though.

The proposed removal of judges who are specialists that preside over matters relating to children and complex family matters is a disgrace. When you need a script for medication, you go to the doctor, a GP, not a surgeon. When you need help with your family law matter, you need a family law practitioner, not a commercial lawyer. It is basic commonsense but not for this government, who, sadly, see family law as a good place to scrape a few modest savings together at the expense of so many and our society at large.

The Federal Circuit Court judges have broader experience and decide on matters as varied as trademark law, workplace relations and administrative law. Eighty per cent of matters in the Federal Circuit Court involve far less complex cases. The Family Law Court has carriage of 20 per cent of the family court matters. These are complex issues facing our society that require specialised skill and the experience of the judges that are hearing the case. These 20 per cent of cases are complicated and they can involve a range of social issues, including drug and alcohol abuse, child abuse, criminal matters, family and domestic violence, and mental ill health. These matters are serious, they are complex and they deserve the attention of judges who are specialised and equipped to deal with such things.

This simplistic approach of rolling these two courts together, as proposed by this inept government on the other side, does not do anything for those families who have complex matters that require detailed and thorough hearings. These are the families who painfully and traumatically relived their experiences to give evidence at our inquiry. We've asked them for their input, but they have been ignored. The lack of consultation with regard to this bill has angered so many in the sector. Stakeholders have not been consulted. The Law Council, the legal assistance services and judges themselves have protested to the government on this matter. It is incredibly unusual to hear judges speak out on these matters, but they have been blowing their whistles as best they can in their positions. They're forced into defending themselves as they're accused by this government of not performing adequately. The consultation has been botched and Minister Porter owes nothing short of an apology to those who have had aspersions cast on them and their work.

We then had the debacle over the consultation period and the changes to it, which came after the government announced the Australian Law Reform Commission would 'holistically and thoroughly investigate' and report back on the family law system. It's due next year. It's possibly the largest, most significant review of its kind to be undertaken in this complex family law system. This government is now not waiting for that inquiry to run its course and to make findings based on a thorough investigation—an inquiry, mind you, that it asked for. This inquiry will be wide ranging and will take evidence from many people who are currently in the system. This inquiry is landmark and is due to report on 31 March next year. It makes no sense whatsoever to rush or make any substantive changes before that time. Due process, adequate consultation and proper decision-making must take place given the scale of the changes that are proposed and the magnitude this court has over the lives of so many families.

Family law is a serious issue. This government should be taking its responsibility to the people inside the system equally seriously. The bill needs proper consultation with input from the sector, and the government should not ignore the advice from experts that it already has in front of it. It is time to face reality and admit that it got this wrong; to listen to those who have had everyday experience of the family law system, who deserve to have their say; and to improve it for the next family who find themselves there. It would be pure arrogance for Minister Porter, the Attorney-General, to continue with the proposed changes, which are ill-conceived and ill-thought through. Sure, the government's proposed changes could streamline the system, but we know that there is not a one-size-fits-all square peg to the hole that is family law. Packaging it up neatly may work as a solution on a spreadsheet or to a bean counter or on Minister Porter's notebook but, trust me, in real life, it will not.

I have a solution for him, since he seems devoid of any real ideas. How about we invest in the system? The solution is to provide the courts with the funding that they need, unlike the underfunded system we currently see. The member for Macquarie pointed out Chief Justice Diana Bryant's comments last year, where she was begging for more money and resources. This proposed bill smacks of cost saving, but it will cost our nation so much more in damages if the social fabric of our families and our communities is tarnished in this way. Ensuring that there is a large pool of judges, experienced and ready and able to fill the benches as our retiring judges leave, will provide the human resources to hear more cases in a more timely and effective manner. There is an economic and social benefit in getting through the backlog.

Minister Porter is suggesting that family law court judges would face certain extinction, slowly dying out as the government refuses to replace the retiring judges. Their solution to allow generalist judges to hear complex law cases is just simply not acceptable. All the government has as evidence that this will work is a report commissioned by consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, which took six weeks of desktop research as well as some consultation with a few senior stakeholders. That report made some very heroic assumptions, including that there was an equivalent level of complexity between the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court. That is patently a ridiculous assumption to make and it undermines the findings of this report, which, unsurprisingly, was that the Family Court was less efficient than the Federal Circuit Court—hardly surprising when you're dealing with such complex cases.

The government has handled this bill incredibly poorly and has not bothered to talk to people and groups who are in the family law system every single day: the family groups, the charities, the registrars, the legal assistance services, the lawyers and the judges to name but a few. There are absolutely serious issues facing the Family Court right now. Delays are one part. The idea that you can give the courts less money to do more with is absolutely absurd. The government continue to run a flawed agenda with a process they do not comprehend and they are relegating families and, moreover, vulnerable children to lives on a waiting list—lives which are unstable and unpredictable. The government have the capacity right now to act by giving money to the courts and by replacing the judges who have recently retired, to enable more cases to be heard in a timely manner and get those families off the waiting list. Families should not be in limbo for four years because this government see them as a place to save money.

This week I have the pleasure of arranging a briefing for members of the community who know too well the shortcomings of the family law system, who know what it's like to be affected by it and who work with children who have been devastated as a result of the inadequate process of the family law system. They will come to Canberra to advocate for a better, fairer system that is focused on better, more timely outcomes for families who need it.

My great fear is that, 20 years from now, someone occupying these benches will get up and make a national apology to those families being disadvantaged by the current delays. We can stand up in this place and debate this and speak to the complexities of the delays, time frames and legal-speak but, at the end of the day, we are talking about our children. We are talking about their lives and their stability. All of us in here, each and every person, who haven't experienced the dog's breakfast of family law should be grateful.

The government needs a laser-like focus trained on the outcomes for children who are subject to the Family Court. It needs a laser-like focus on bringing change that is needed and funding that is so desperately required. Anything less than that is an abject failure to do the exact thing government is supposed to do, which is protect its citizens. I applaud the work of all those people in the system and thank them for their tireless work on behalf of the families and children who find themselves there. It is not a choice that people voluntarily submit themselves to without good reason. The work that these people do is intense and the consequences are immense. I look forward to welcoming the delegation of family law activists this week to parliament and to working with them to ensure that the right and just outcomes are reached, not a cost-saving exercise that benefits nobody.