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Wednesday, 19 October 1983
Page: 1960

Mr RUDDOCK(6.27) —I shall make my comments short. There are three points I should like to make. Firstly, in all the evidence that the Joint Select Committee on the Family Law Act received, compulsory counselling had a very poor success rate in achieving reconciliations. It had a very poor success rate in helping even in relation to the sort of dissolution counselling that goes on. To compel people to come in for counselling is not terribly helpful. The honourable member for Bass (Mr Newman) who spoke before me might ask: 'Look, if that is the case, why do you have this section 14 (6) and why are you making this amendment? ' I think the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans) is in part hoist with his own petard because he is making an amendment to alter the date from the date of the filing of the application to an earlier date.

Section 14 (6) was originally proposed because the old Matrimonial Causes Act had in it provisions which made divorce very much more difficult. It was felt when the Family Law Act was introduced that it would be necessary to maintain some special provisions in relation to young people-that is, first marriages- because we recognised that they were under very intense pressure at that time and were more likely to be subjected to difficulties which could cause a breakdown. We thought that if we could help them over that period maybe they would have more of a chance of survival. It was in that context that section 14 (6) was proposed and has been left. I think all of us feel that in relation to those very young marriages we have to do something. We really do not know what is necessary to make those marriages which are at risk last, but that is why we have that provision.

I can only say that in all the time that I looked at the question of when counselling was to be most helpful I formed the view that the only way in which it would be helpful was if it could get into the scene of a possible breakup at the earliest possible date. Honourable members supporting this amendment will say: 'That is what we are trying to do. By making people give a notice we will have a chance of getting them at the earliest possible date'. Let us look at the report that the Committee brought down. We brought down suggestions that counselling be extended particularly to other courts such as State courts and magistrates courts that have delegated the jurisdiction. We looked at the sorts of matters that the courts were dealing with. They deal frequently with the situation in which a wife is at risk because she has been assaulted by her husband, where children are at risk because they are being neglected and where people come to the notice of courts of summary jurisdiction. Those marriages are very likely to be at risk. If a counselling service in that court system were ready and available, the counsellors might very well be able to be of some help and assistance.

I am not satisfied that the Government has yet moved to a situation where those sorts of courts of summary jurisdiction will have the capacity and the service to be able to deal with people at that instance. If I were looking at a way in which I could get counselling to more people where it was likely to be successful, it seems to me that it would be by extending the counselling services in the areas I have suggested-the areas of the courts which are first and more likely to see the parties who are at risk. However, I am not convinced- I certainly want to be consistent-with young marriages and I am not convinced with what might be described as the more mature marriages that are breaking up, that compulsory counselling will have any appreciable effect in the numbers of marriages that are saved, particularly at the time in which that counselling is brought to bear. I think the time of the counsellors is more likely to be better served by working not on the broad mass of cases, but with cases that are identified where they will be helpful in achieving a reconciliation. They are the sorts of cases in which counselling is needed.

Mr Cadman —That's fairy land. How do you identify them? What is the process?

Mr RUDDOCK —I think these cases are more likely to be identified by people coming in who are in a situation where they recognise that something needs to be done and where their legal advisers recognise that this is a situation where some assistance might be able to be offered. In many of the other procedures the courts have available to them court counsellers who are brought in touch with the parties. In some of the administrative procedures that have gone through people come to notice and there is more prospect of working in the areas where they are able to do so with advantage. Notwithstanding that, one also has to recognise that the solution that is proposed-I am not criticising the objectives the honourable member is seeking to achieve-is very likely to make it more difficult for some cases in which a divorce may be the ultimate outcome. It will be more difficult for some people simply because they have not put in their certificate at the time that they have sought to obtain counselling advice.

I am very supportive of the objectives that the honourable member has in mind. I am certainly very supportive of achieving the sorts of objectives that Senator Harradine has in mind. If honourable members look at all the statements I have made on family law matters, on marriage and divorce, they will see that I am resolute in my determination to encourage people to remain married and to strengthen the institution of marriage. But I want to look critically at everything that is proposed to ask that question: 'Will it serve that objective? ' I very much doubt from my judgment and experience that this amendment will do that. I have suggested other areas of activity where I believe counselling, if offered, could be more fruitful.