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Monday, 10 September 2018
Page: 8355

Mr VAN MANEN (FordeGovernment Whip) (12:37): It is indeed a pleasure to rise in this House and speak on what I think is an extraordinarily important piece of legislation, the Family Law Amendment (Family Violence and Cross-examination of Parties) Bill 2018. I listened with interest to the comments from the member for Isaacs earlier. I think we all in this place can agree that a bill of this nature deserves support. The reason for that is that victims of family violence or parties involved in family law matters can presently be cross-examined by the alleged perpetrators of that violence. I think many people across our community would find great concern with this—and justifiably so.

At the October 2016 COAG National Summit on Reducing Violence Against Women and their Children, it was agreed that perpetrators of family violence should not be able to personally cross-examine their victims in any family law or family violence proceedings. In the 2017-18 federal budget, it was announced that the legislation would be progressed by the Attorney-General to implement these family law proceedings. The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee reported its inquiry into the bill and recommended that the bill be passed, subject to details regarding funding of the bill being made public prior to the commencement of debate in the Senate.

This bill responds directly to the recommendations of the committee's report. As I reflect on the topic that we're discussing, it's important to remember in all of this that it's not about what we discuss here in this House; it's actually about the families and the children who suffer in these circumstances. Importantly, these amendments also apply equally to parenting and property proceedings, thereby ensuring the appropriate safeguards for the victims of family violence are applied in all types of family law proceedings.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's report found one in six Australian women and one in 16 Australian men have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a current or previous partner, and one in four women and one in six men have experienced emotional abuse by a current or previous partner. Sadly, the report showed those most at risk were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, young women, pregnant women, women with disabilities, women experiencing financial hardship, and women and men who experienced abuse or witnessed domestic violence as a child.

The cost to the nation of violence against women is significant on many fronts. The KPMG report into the cost of violence against women and their children in Australia stated:

Violence against women and their children is a crime and a fundamental breach of human rights. Experiencing violence has significant implications for victims, their children, families, friends, employers and co-workers. The implications of violence can include long term social, health, psychological, financial, and economic—

harm. KPMG estimated the financial cost of such violence was $22 billion per annum in 2015-16 but noted that when taking into account under-represented groups and their source data, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, pregnant women, women with a disability, and women experiencing homelessness, an additional $4 billion may be added, taking the total financial cost to $26 billion per annum.

Family violence is not just about dollars; it is about people. It is about men, women and children—not statistics but human beings. It's not about the numbers but mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandparents, and the people next door, many who keep it secret and suffer in silence for weeks, months or years. It is in every community and in every electorate. The human cost to our society is both devastating and intolerable and is part of the human toll that this bill seeks to address.

We know that domestic violence and abuse can take many forms: physical, verbal, financial, emotional, sexual, stalking, spiritual and image based. Any and all of these are used against victims, often over a considerable time frame and almost always with devastating results. The reality of this terrible scourge is that, as we stand here today, thousands of Australians are being subject to the most terrible abuse by violent, vicious and uncaring partners. Thousands of children are witnessing what has become, tragically, normalised behaviour for many.

The ultimate tragedy for all of us is that there are many victims in our communities who won't make it as far as the court. These are the victims who pay the ultimate price and who die at the hands of their attackers. We all know the shameful regularity of domestic violence deaths. Week by week, the human toll increases and the shame on our society is added to.

The luckier victims—and I use that term only as a measure of degree—who reach the court system have often endured years of unimaginable physical and mental abuse. Subjugated by permanent and crippling levels of fear, they have, through circumstances or through sheer courage and force of will, been able to escape their abusers. The direct cross-examination of such victims of family violence by their alleged perpetrator can expose the victims to the possibility or even likelihood of retraumatisation and has the potential to undo even years of treatment and therapy and affect the quality and the clarity of their evidence. We hear public testimony of survivors saying their cross-examination by former partners drove them towards suicide. The often one-sided power dynamics underlying family violence can also make it difficult for victims to effectively cross-examine their alleged perpetrator. Research conducted by the Institute of Family Studies found that over two years between 2015 and 2017 direct cross-examination in final hearings occurred in 173 matters where there were allegations of family violence and one or both parties were self-represented.

This bill seeks to amend the Family Law Act to prohibit the personal cross-examination where there is an allegation of family violence between parties and any of the following applies: either party has been convicted of or is charged with an offence involving violence or a threat of violence to the other party; a family violence order other than an interim order applies to both parties; an injunction under section 68B or 114 of the Family Law Act for the personal protection of either party is directed against the other party; or the court makes an order that personal cross-examination is prohibited. The bill provides that if personal cross-examination is prohibited, cross-examination must be conducted by a legal representative, and it provides that if there is an allegation of family violence but personal cross-examination is not prohibited, the court must apply other appropriate protections.

This bill anticipates a process through which the court would make a request or direction that the party engage a lawyer, either privately or through legal aid, for the purposes of cross-examination. These arrangements will be provided for in the rules of the court and/or practice directions as necessary. The bill is balanced and affords equal protections to both parties in a proceeding. However, there should be no doubt that it sends a strong signal to the community that the rights of victims matter, and that this government understands that victims of crime, often overlooked, deserve the type of protections that in too many jurisdictions these days seem only to be afforded to criminals.

We should not pretend that this legislative change alone will bring an end to family violence. That is a fight that is going to be fought on many fronts across our society for time to come. The bill before us is intended to be and needs to be a step forward to provide these protections to the victims. I hope this bill will, at least to some degree, ease the burden of fear of those many people who are currently facing the devastating situation of being victims of family violence and who, until now, have had their victimisation exacerbated by the very system that seeks to protection them. I hope it allows them the comfort of knowing that they will not be compelled to face the alleged perpetrator of the violence and abuse that has consumed them and become, often, the most significant, terrifying and destructive episode in their life. I'm proud of the fact that this bill has been brought before the House and of the bipartisan commitment that the member for Isaacs outlined earlier. We seek in this bill to provide the rights and protections to victims of family violence that are so desperately needed.