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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18501

Mr WILLIAMS (Attorney-General) (11:57 AM) —I thank the honourable members for Barton, Blair, Curtin, Chifley, Dickson and Greenway for their contributions to the debate on the Family Law Amendment Bill 2003. I am pleased to note the opposition's support for both the bill and the government's approach to reform of the family law system. I note that the member for Barton questioned my recent decision to appoint two new federal magistrates—one in Adelaide and one in Melbourne—rather than replace two judges of the Family Court.

I welcome the opportunity to say something about the approach currently being taken by the government. We see the family law system as encompassing, among other institutions, both the Family Court and Federal Magistrates Service. We will make decisions about resources, having regard to the efficient administration of the system as a whole. Already a significant proportion of family law work is being carried out by the FMS, and I expect that that proportion will increase. When the FMS was being established, it was expected that over time there would be changes in the judicial composition of federal courts. A careful assessment of the workload and resources of the Family Court and the FMS in Adelaide and Melbourne indicated that the availability of additional federal magistrates is a greater priority in those locations at this stage.

I recognise the member for Chifley's passionate views regarding reform of section 121 of the Family Law Act. The public policy issues that impact on section 121 are complex and require a balance between the right to personal privacy and the need for public scrutiny of our court system. The bill we are debating makes a number of minor reforms to the section to make clear the power of the court, and others, to publish electronically accounts of its own proceedings and court lists.

As many speakers have noted, the bill was referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee for consideration, and the committee is due to table its report today. The government will consider any recommendations that the committee makes about the bill and, if appropriate, propose further amendments to respond to those recommendations.

As it stands, the bill makes a range of amendments to the Family Law Act 1975 as part of the government's ongoing reform of the family law system. The amendments simplify and better integrate the family law system. In particular, the bill clarifies those provisions of the Family Law Act dealing with property and financial interests. Many of these amendments are complementary to recent changes to superannuation law and family law.

The provisions in schedule 6 of the bill are particularly significant. They give courts exercising jurisdiction under the Family Law Act the power to make orders binding on third parties when dealing with property settlement proceedings. The provisions make it clear that, within defined limits, courts will have power to direct a third party to do something in relation to the property of a party to the marriage. The schedule provides for procedural rights to be given to third parties to ensure that the changes do not affect the underlying substance of property rights of the creditor. Consultations are currently continuing with the banking and financial services sectors in relation to schedule 6 with a view to any necessary amendments to the provisions being made in the Senate. I am confident that those issues can be resolved satisfactorily.

A number of the amendments in the bill clarify and refine amendments made by the Family Law Amendment Act 2000. In particular, the amendments improve the operation of the provisions in the Family Law Act relating to the parenting compliance regime for the enforcement of parenting orders. The enforcement of parenting orders, as speakers have noted, is an area of significant public concern. These amendments will improve flexibility for clients, the court and post-separation parenting program providers, as the member for Greenway noted.

In addition, the improvements in the bill to the operation of the financial agreement provisions in the Family Law Act will assist parties who are seeking to resolve property matters after separation without resorting to litigation. Financial agreements were introduced by the government in the 2000 amendment act and allow people to have greater control and choice over their own affairs in the event of marital breakdown.

The bill will allow admissions by adults and disclosures by children made in counselling and mediation sessions under the Family Law Act that indicate that a child has been abused or is at risk of abuse to be admitted as evidence. Such evidence will be admissible unless the court is of the opinion that there is sufficient evidence of the admission or disclosure available to the court from other sources. The amendment implements recommendations of the Family Law Council in its September 2002 report on family law and child protection. The reforms in the bill are consistent with the report of the Family Law Pathways Advisory Group, Pathways to the future for families experiencing separation.

The government is committed to the ongoing reform of the family law system. The system needs to be sufficiently flexible to respond to changing needs but appropriately firm to ensure that the processes are consistent and the law is clear. I can advise the Main Committee that the government intends to move six amendments. Two of the amendments will insert new measures that will clarify the law in relation to financial agreements, and the remaining four will correct drafting errors so that the provisions operate as intended. While the amendments will be largely technical in nature, they will contribute to a family law system that is clear and certain and operates as intended. Both the amendments in the bill and other government initiatives, such as the recently announced working group to look at ways to better coordinate the Commonwealth's family law system with child protection systems at state and territory levels, are intended to improve the operation of the family law system. They aim to minimise the difficulties experienced by people and children after relationships break down. I commend the bill to the Main Committee.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.