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Monday, 19 October 2015
Page: 11700

Mr PERRETT (Moreton) (13:01): I rise to speak on the motion put by the member for Indi and commend her for her interest and initiative in this area. Domestic violence is an enormous problem in this country and around the world. In Australia this year we have seen at least one woman dies every week at the hands of a current or former partner. We have seen some particularly troubling scenes in Queensland. One woman in three experiences physical violence. One woman in five experiences sexual violence. And men are not immune from experiencing this horrible scourge. Be they heterosexual or GLBTIQ, nobody is invulnerable, not even—it is horrible to say—the young students from FCJ College at Benalla who are here hearing the motion of the member for Indi debated.

A Family Law Council report released in August identifies data suggesting that over 60 per cent of parents experience preseparation violence and almost 20 per cent of parents report that they are concerned for the safety of themselves or their children as a result of ongoing contact with the other parent.

This year I have spoken to many family lawyers, community legal centres and litigants from Cairns to Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. I am constantly told of the ability of perpetrators of domestic and family violence to continue the abuse through the legal process. This can take many forms, including using delaying tactics; not providing disclosure as required by the court; not turning up at court as required; not cooperating with any attempts at settlement, forcing both parties into the court process, a process which is intimidating for anyone but even more so for someone who is fleeing family violence; and attempting to use the process of cross-examination as another weapon to inflict pain, as detailed in the motion of the member for Indi.

Cross-examination is and has always been a part of the court process in contested trials, and this obviously can be a very traumatic part of obtaining judicial guidance. I do note that cross-examination is not part of the process for interim hearings, when matters first come before the courts and decisions need to be made on a temporary basis until the trial can be heard—that is, when the facts are tested by the judiciary. In those hearings the evidence is by way of affidavits from each party and is not tested through cross-examination. I do note, thankfully, that most matters do not actually go on to a trial. If matters have not been resolved by the time a court can hear the trial then it will be heard by a judge in a contested hearing and all the evidence will be tested through cross-examination. The time frame in between the interim hearing stage and a trial is getting longer and longer, with the Chief Justice of the Family Court, Diana Bryant, stating in an interview on ABC Radio last week that it is now likely to be 12 months delay—a year of stasis. A year can be an eternity for a child and even for parents.

No-one wants to see a victim of family violence being cross-examined by the perpetrator of that violence. The prospect of that happening is much more likely now than it was some time ago. Self-represented litigants are increasing in number in our courts. The increased number of self-represented litigants is overwhelmingly due to the decrease in funding for access to justice.

The Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, has shown complete contempt for access to justice by ripping $15 million from legal aid commissions in last year's budget. That cut followed $43 million of cuts in late 2013 to legal aid, to community legal centres—which are already incredibly lean organisations—to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services and, worst of all, to family violence prevention legal centres. It is vitally important that victims of family violence be represented in their family law hearings. With cuts to legal aid and legal assistance services, this is increasingly unlikely to be the case.

Apart from the immense protection that representation provides in court both legally and emotionally, representation aids the court process by ensuring that only relevant issues are aired in court and only relevant questions are put to witnesses. Court time is very, very valuable. Waiting times are increasing not only due to the huge number of matters being listed in courts but also due to the Attorney-General failing to replace retiring judges. There are six vacancies in the Federal Circuit Court and one in the Brisbane Family Court. The Attorney-General took 560 days to replace a judge in the Sydney registry of the Family Court, and I know that there are also delays in Newcastle. The Chief Justice said last week that the courts will never make up the time from the delay in replacing retiring judges.

With court time so precious, making the court process more efficient by providing representation for litigants would assist not only those litigants but also our entire family law system. Women who have experienced family violence should not be left to negotiate the family law system alone.