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Joint Select Committee on Australia's Family Law System
08/07/2020
Improvements in family law proceedings

O'BRIEN, Ms Carmel, Private capacity

Evidence was taken via teleconference

[12:45]

CHAIR: Welcome. You've lodged submission No. 582 with the committee. Would you like to make any amendments to that submission?

Ms O'Brien : No. I'm happy to go from there.

CHAIR: Information in relation to parliamentary privilege, the protection of witnesses and giving evidence to parliamentary committees has been provided to you as part of your invitation to attend.

Ms O'Brien : Correct.

CHAIR: I now invite you to make some opening comments.

Ms O'Brien : Certainly. Most of my experience has been as a psychologist and as a counsellor. I have a particular interest in recovery from family violence for women and children. I've worked with people in private practice, but most of my career was in the public sector, in community services, running counselling services, domestic violence services and programs. When I left for the community sector, I decided that I would look at exploring some of the issues that clients had raised with me over the years. I conducted quite an extensive series of interviews a couple of years ago with people who had experiences in all the court systems. I asked them about their experiences with police, state courts and family courts. My submission is based largely on what I heard from those survivors but also on what I heard from clients over many years.

When the Family Court was set up, it was a dispute resolution mechanism on the assumption that it would be dealing with reasonable couples who were keen to resolve their issues and do the best for their children. We know that about two-thirds of the couples who separate don't go to a court, a lawyer or anyone in order to make arrangements for access to their children and shared care. We also know that a very small number, less than five per cent, go to Family Court, and of those a very small percentage actually end up going to trial. What that means is that the Family Court is really a speciality court, not just for families but for those with allegations of abuse. It needs to have particular expertise to draw on to ensure that outcomes for children are best. When people's abusive behaviour is very controlling and coercive, the court doesn't have two parties who are willing to resolve issues. There may be a party whose real aim is to harass or punish or further abuse their former partner. This is why I think the Family Court really needs to be well set up to deal expertly with allegations of abuse. I don't think that is the case at the moment. We have inconsistent responses and outcomes, some of which are excellent and some of which simply don't keep children safe. I should stop talking and take some questions.

CHAIR: Thank you. In your submission, in recommendation No. 2, you say:

The family court system requires radical changes to

- make it inquisitorial rather than adversarial,

- to put in place effective risk assessment framework and practices …

- to ensure families are not impoverished in their efforts to achieve safety for their children

- provide follow up for children after the court process has been completed, to ensure ongoing safety.

Would you like to expand on making the Family Court inquisitorial rather than adversarial? Could you indicate some of the features that would encompass if it were inquisitorial? What would it look like?

Ms O'Brien : You have to bear in mind that I am a psychologist and not a lawyer. In terms of the practicalities, a lawyer should probably answer that question. My understanding of the difference it would make is that, with an inquisitorial system, the onus is on the judge and the panel of experts the judge has to call on to seek evidence, make sure that it is presented to them and then consider it to make a decision. What happens now is there is a very adversarial system, which means that the parties are often trying to get a lot of evidence against each other, but sometimes not all of that is presented in court. Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn't, depending on what evidence is admitted. In the end, you have an ongoing battle rather than a panel of experts who are gathering evidence, considering evidence and then making a decision in order to resolve it. I would hope that an inquisitorial system would be more skilled in making competent family violence risk assessments, and I think that it would also be far less expensive. When we think about the horrendous cost of Family Court for a lot of people, it's pretty commonly understood that it's very expensive, but it's important to think beyond that to the fact that what this is actually doing is impoverishing families. I have spoken to hundreds of survivors who do not feel they will ever be able to provide for their children the lifestyle that the children had prior to separation, and that is very unfortunate. I read an Australian Institute of Family Studies report that looked at married mothers and fathers and divorced mothers and fathers. Those with the largest asset pool are divorced fathers; those with the smallest are divorced mothers. I'm not blaming the Family Court for that. I'm sure that there are a lot of things that contribute to that, but, if you can make the Family Court procedures more efficient, they will be faster and they would be cheaper and it would work better.

CHAIR: You remind me of what Professor Parkinson said to us in Rockhampton. He said, 'The family law system forces you to say bad things about the other parent.' That doesn't seem to be a system that would best engender a peaceful outcome, let alone one that's going to be less costly.

Ms O'Brien : Correct. I'm with him there.

CHAIR: I'll now go to Senator Hanson.

Senator HANSON: Thank you, Chair. Thank you, Ms O'Brien. In your submission, you talk about 'commencing a domestic violence prevention program for girls in schools'. Can you expand on that, please?

Ms O'Brien : Yes. In the organisation that I worked for, we started a program about relationship education in schools. It's called iMatter. Originally, it was a program for girls. It's now a co-ed program and it's an ongoing program. That involves sending two facilitators to usually year 9, but sometimes it's year 9 and year 10 students, to talk about what to look for in a healthy relationship and what makes a healthy relationship and to get them to open up about relationships that they have, because most young men and women around that age are starting to begin girlfriend-boyfriend relationships. That's what that program is about, and it's still operating.

Senator HANSON: You touched on the issue of parental alienation. Do you want to explain your views about that?

Ms O'Brien : Yes, I would. Parental alienation is quite a thorny issue. For start, sometimes people have a broad view and some have a narrow view. The narrower view is that it is about a parent, deliberately or by example, maligning the other parent when there's no basis for denigrating the other parent. There's no doubt that some parents do actively encourage their children to think badly of other parents and even to treat them badly. In my experience of working with families, the most likely parents to do this are those who have also abused the other parent beforehand. Others have a bit of a broader view and include what some call 'parent estrangement', which is where a child becomes estranged from a parent because of the parent's behaviour—that the parent somehow has neglected or frightened the child and the child does not have a good relationship with that person. So I think that the definitions could be a bit wider.

In some of the cases that I've known, parental alienation has become an issue when allegations are made by one parent about the other and there is not a lot of hard evidence to support that allegation. It might be that a mother is very concerned that their child is being molested on access visits, or that a father is concerned that their child is not being fed or something like that on access visits. The problem is that, although the family assessments that are done for court are done by very competent mental health experts, there isn't in that mix of them a family violence risk assessment. I think somehow the idea of a mental health assessment and a family violence assessment has become conflated as a family assessment. But that creates problems.

If a professional can't establish the basis of whether an allegation is true or not, they may, if they're a mental health expert, look for a mental health explanation for the allegation being made. Sometimes they will talk about the alienating behaviours being subconscious or the person who is making the allegation being delusional. First of all, if something is unconscious, it's unintentional and therefore it's very difficult to defend against. It's also not possible to prove. I think that, because we have a single expert, you can have a Family Court assessor who believes that somebody who is making an allegation because of a mental health issue or because of a behaviour or motivational issue is vindictive. What happens then is the allegations are less likely to be explored.

I suppose the way it is that sometimes courts are left in the position not of working out whether the child is at risk but of working out who to believe. If you get that wrong then the child could very well be left in a situation where they are at risk. In my experience, it's quite difficult to get a child to change their beliefs about their experience of a parent and for a child to believe that someone has loved them and then later on, even if you're coached, to report abuse that hasn't happened. With sexual abuse allegations, I think that's even more the case. Children normally don't even have the language to make those allegations and, when they disclose sexual abuse, they often include details in their own language, if you like, that simply I don't think could be very easily coached.

Senator HANSON: There are circumstances where a parent doesn't allow the other parent to have access to see the children and this goes on for a lengthy period of time because there's a domestic violence rule against them, and then they use that as a reason why that parent should not see the child and, in the meantime, they are going through the court process where the parent is trying to get access to see the children. There is then the impact on the child through parental alienation. The child asks why their mum or dad doesn't want to see them. The fact is that they are of the belief that the parent doesn't want to spend time with them or see them, because of the length of time it takes to get back to the court system. How do we deal with this, where there is parental alienation and the child is of the opinion that the other parent doesn't want to see them, and, when they've had this in their mind for a period of time, they turn around and say, 'Dad'—or mum—'doesn't want to see me so therefore I'm not going to see them'?

Ms O'Brien : You are talking about a complex family issue that isn't going to be resolved by any kind of order really, and there would be very individual circumstances. In what you're describing, it may be that there is someone who believes the other parent doesn't want to see them when, in fact, they do. If a parent is telling another parent that, it is abusive to the child. If you really want to protect children from that sort of thing, you need to have a different system in the Family Court. Professor Parkinson summed it beautifully. You don't want a system that encourages parents to say bad things about each other to the court or to their children. Fundamentally, what you want is a really competent family violence risk assessment. For that, you need to have a multidisciplinary team. You need people who have expertise in child development; you may need police and police records; you may need a child protection expert; you might need a child trauma expert; and you probably need a different type of expertise for different cases. You certainly need that broad kind of multidisciplinary input in order to have a look at what is really going on. That's more likely to circumvent the problem that's created—as you say, it goes on and on—down the track.

From some of the interviews I did with Family Court assessors who had worked in the system in the 1970s and 1980s, they described a system that was more like that—that they had in-house employees of the court who did those family assessments and family counselling and resolved issues. The people who worked back then were of the opinion that that was a safer system for children. So I think we have to get back to the court's purpose, which is to protect children and get a best outcome for them. If you're not dealing with the allegations of abuse effectively, then you're not going to be able to guarantee the best outcomes.

At the moment, there is too much inconsistency in responses, there's too little scrutiny of the professionals and there is no follow-up with children a month, six months, two years or five years down the track to find out whether it is working for them. If the court has acted in good faith but made an error of judgement about whether the abuse occurred, the child may still be in a situation of neglect or abuse when they are with one parent or the other, and there is no way of knowing that. I think we could learn an enormous amount by making sure that children have access to regular follow-up sessions with a competent professional.

Senator HANSON: We have heard a lot of evidence from fathers who believe that they have had false allegations of domestic violence brought against them, purely for the fact of denying them access to children. Basically, that is an abuse of the child's right to spend time with their father. In some cases, it is also women; it is just not men. How do we deal with this to actually ensure that it is truthful evidence? Should we actually have perjury? Well, there is perjury, but it is not addressed by the courts.

Ms O'Brien : In one sense, I think you're making my case for me. I'm just reiterating what I said. If you want to have a clearer idea about what is going on, which is what you are saying—who is telling the truth, is what you're getting at.

Senator HANSON: How do you find out who is telling the truth?

Ms O'Brien : That is where you need a different way of assessing what is going on than we have now.

Senator HANSON: But we're hearing evidence that court reporters are not reporting what is actually happening in these meetings. We're getting conflicting stories from people that that's not what they've have said, that the wrong story's been put before the court, and they feel that the evidence is not being put before the court. Even for a lot of domestic violence—there are different levels of domestic violence. We can have someone texting or phoning, 'We want to see the children,' or people saying that they're in fear being domestic violence. It doesn't have to be physical domestic violence. It is basically just saying, 'I want to see the children.' To use that as an excuse so that the other parent doesn't get to see the children is excessive.

Ms O'Brien : Okay. I hear what you're saying. Of course, women's services all over the country hear just as many stories from women who say, 'I have disclosed abuse. I've told them what's happening. The court wouldn't listen, or the assessor didn't put it in their report,' in the same way that you hear from men who feel that they have been lied about. I think that's a really good indication that at the moment the court is not doing as good a job as it should. Perjury is a legal issue. I don't go down that track. I think that that's the end of the road once someone's lied. What I'd like to see is better gatekeeping in order to encourage couples to be open and honest, and to also have people who can assess whether somebody has a genuine willingness to do the best for the child. One of the groups of people that I interviewed that really affected me were the young people aged 18 to 24 who had been through the court system and who, as a result of court orders, had had to spend time with a parent that they felt either afraid of or neglected by. I've been listening to traumatic stories all my working life. Those stories affected me more than the survivor stories. I would hear a story and I would picture that child, that little boy, who told me he would be standing in the wardrobe waiting to be picked up by his dad every second Saturday, holding a toy sword in case his dad hurt his mum. There are hundreds and hundreds of those sorts of stories. If we had follow-up for children after access arrangements were made, we might hear about what is happening and be able to protect those children. I think in my submission I talked about a young man that I interviewed who had been sexually abused by his father from the age of eight to 11. His father then got a new partner and moved interstate and has not contacted that boy again, so I'm interested in his level of commitment to parenting. But what the boy said to me was, 'If I hadn't gone back to mum then, I would have killed myself.'

All that you've been saying is in some ways no different to what I'm saying, in the sense that the system isn't working. At the moment, the system is not able to provide two things: a safe place to make disclosures, and competent and rigorous family violence assessment. In the last 15 years, right across Australia, we have become much more skilled in family violence risk assessments. In Victoria, the model is the MARAM. These models exist in all states. They are always a multidisciplinary team looking at risks to a particular family. I think that that's the sort of thing that we need to have in the Family Court. One of the really puzzling things for me about the Family Court is that so many of the workers, particularly lawyers, talk to me about the hierarchical system in the court, in terms of whose evidence has the most weight. It was absolutely clear and consistent with all them: a psychiatrist's view about the family has the most weight, followed by a psychologist's, followed by a social worker's—not a domestic violence worker's. In fact, I also spoke to a number of domestic violence workers. None of them had ever been called to give evidence, and some of them had not been allowed to give evidence when their clients had requested that they be subpoenaed. They didn't have enough training or status or something for the court to feel that their evidence would be valuable, or they are regarded as being biased. If you have an independent panel, you can have domestic violence experts who are not the experts for that family and don't know that family from a bar of soap but who can provide their expertise. In a way, the hierarchical system of who knows most about family violence in the Family Court is tipped upside down, because family violence workers work with these issues all the time. Men's behaviour change workers and the men who work with programs for offenders have an enormous amount to offer and could probably be very useful in terms of that risk assessment. I think what we have to do is have a different way of dealing with allegations.

Senator HANSON: Thank you very much for your evidence. I must hand over because time is very restrained here. Thank you very much, Ms O'Brien.

Dr ALY: Thank you, Ms O'Brien, for your evidence today and for your submission. I have one question with regard to your third recommendation about the multidisciplinary team and an assessment process. We've heard other evidence, and other recommendations have been made, with regard to better training of people at various levels and in various roles in the Family Court system around domestic violence. How does that fit into your recommendation for an assessment process? Is it one or the other, or do you see the two working in tandem?

Ms O'Brien : Has the suggestion been for further training for lawyers and Family Court assessors? Is that what you mean?

Dr ALY: And for judges as well.

Ms O'Brien : Some of that training certainly has been rolled out and is available, and that is great. The training is well worth having. I think, though, that, as I said earlier, one of the problems is that the court relies on a mental health expert to assess risk. I don't think the single expert system is the best system for a family assessment. That's really what I'm saying. So, yes, training should be provided to court staff. The more we all learn about the dynamics of family violence the more we can recognise the tactics that people who are abusive use, particularly, in this context, using the court system. I think that's great. But the expertise is out there. I would love to see in-house family violence assessment panels. One of the other issues that a lot of lawyers brought up when we were talking about cost was the cost of Family Court assessments as well as lawyers. You're looking at probably $5,000 for a Family Court assessment. Women who have talked to me about wishing to appeal a Family Court order have paid $5,000 or $6,000 just for a transcript before they can appeal, or have heard what it costs and said: 'Well, that's off the table. I haven't got that much money.' I think having them in-house would be a better way. There is also too much disparity in the reports that are made. Some of the families, some of the survivors, I have spoken to have had assessments from two or three different Family Court assessors, each giving completely different recommendations. What that indicates is that there is simply not enough consistency. The other thing is that, in a private setting, a lot of women are put in situations where they feel unsafe. So, even though there are guidelines for Family Court assessors to keep people safe, I had assessors say things to me that indicate that they didn't think they applied—for example, asking a person to turn up and not telling them that a former partner would be there, even though there was an intervention order in place. One Family Court assessor said she didn't think those applied in Family Court assessments. I find that alarming, actually. So, yes, do the training, but it's not just about training the people in the existing system. It's not going to be enough.

Dr ALY: Thank you. I want to quickly question you about the reactions to disclosures of abuse that you outlined in your submission—the dismissal of claims of abuse and family violence. Do you think there is a cultural issue? I understand from your previous answer that some of it has to do with a process, levels of knowledge, expertise and consistency, but is there also a cultural issue around the treatment of family violence and abuse that needs to be addressed?

Ms O'Brien : I absolutely think there is. The issue of disclosure of abuse not being acknowledged in Family Court or it's not being acknowledged in a report or it's not being admitted as evidence or it's being dismissed in different ways. It's so pervasive. I spoke to survivors in every state and territory of Australia and it came up everywhere. I can give you a couple of examples. One woman said, 'The second lawyer spoke to my worker and knew about the extent of the abuse, but told me the abuse was historical because the physical abuse had stopped when he left. It only stopped because of the protection order.' A Family Court judge told one woman whose ex-husband had been convicted of family violence offences in a county court that his behaviour did not, in his opinion, constitute family violence. One woman said, 'The assessor minimised everything I said. I said to her, "You would have seen his police report," and she said, "Well, there's really nothing to that." He had even assaulted the police.' Another woman said, 'We had another assessment by another person who minimised my concerns and said, "I see you've had a bit of drama."' There are endless examples like that. When the examples are so prevalent, we clearly have a cultural problem. I listened to the gentleman before me talking about men feeling judged, and I'm sure they do. I can tell you that women feel judged just as much.

Dr ALY: Thank you, Ms O'Brien. Thank you very much for your contribution. Thanks for appearing today.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Ms O'Brien, thank you for your evidence. One of my questions has been asked. I want to touch on a couple of extra points. Thank you for your answers to the other questions. It's been helpful to me. In recommendation 2, you use the word 'radical'. You say there need to be 'radical changes'. I guess that you are saying we shouldn't just tinker around the edges. Could you elaborate a little bit on that and give us a sense of what you're saying?

Ms O'Brien : Yes. That's where I was talking about the system being too adversarial now to be fit for purpose, and it's not resourced enough—not in terms of money but in terms of expertise. Changes have been made that have been excellent in Family Court. An example would be that people are no longer able to be cross-examined by someone who's routinely assaulted them. That is great. But I think the system needs a complete overhaul in order to make it much more inquisitorial and also much less expensive.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: You also say in that point: 'ensure families are not impoverished in their efforts to achieve safety for their children'. Are you referring to the fees that are involved?

Ms O'Brien : Yes. I've spoken to women who have spent $100,000 or $200,000 on lawyers. I have spoken to many who represent themselves because they've run out of money for court or because they've run out of Legal Aid support. The Legal Aid Commission did an audit in 2015 which found that domestic violence was a factor in 79 per cent of Legal Aid family matters. So family violence is right up there. What men and women find is that the cost of going to court can absolutely skyrocket. One of the factors that need to be recognised is that, instead of having a reasonable parent who is acting in the best interests of their children, you may have a vindictive parent whose aim is to punish their partner or abuse or harass their partner, and one way of doing that is to use the court process. That would include never producing documents until you absolutely have to and having cases adjourned and adjourned and adjourned, where one party turns up and the other party simply doesn't and it takes two or three years to resolve it.

I remember one woman telling me that her partner took her back to court many times because her child was ill, she had taken them to the doctor and he didn't know that they were going. He said that was a breach of the order because she had to tell him. The other reason was that a phone call had been missed, but she had made it up. She made sure the phone call happened, but it was the following day, and there was something on at school that she allowed the child to go to. When she went to court, the judge said, 'We might need to tidy up these orders. Go out and think about it and talk about it.' When they came back into court, the woman's husband dropped the requirement that he needs to be told about routine medical visits and said he was happy with the fact that the phone call had been made up. So, in a sense, he wasn't that concerned about those issues. In my book, he had taken her to court as a kind of harassment, if you like; a nit-picking reaction or an inflexibility, if you like, with the orders. That experience cost her $10,000 and two days of missed work with legal and court appointments. That's an example of how the court system can be used to harass someone, and the court didn't recognise it, in my book.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: You say that the way to reduce the cost is to improve the efficiency. What about capping of fees?

Ms O'Brien : I don't know that's my area of expertise. You should probably ask a lawyer that one.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Thank you very much. That's great.

CHAIR: Ms Steggall.

Ms STEGGALL: Thank you. There's been evidence, mainly from men, that they experience bias in the way that the system treats them or the councillors treat them. Do you have any view or experience with the bias?

Ms O'Brien : Do you mean a bias against men?

Ms STEGGALL: Bias in general. Bias against men in how the system would deal with men alleging domestic violence or being able to access the services.

Ms O'Brien : I haven't managed any kind of service for men in relation to violence. I have seen some men as clients, both offenders and victims of family violence. I don't know that my exposure to men is wide enough. I certainly can tell you that many women feel bias in the sense that they feel they are less likely to be believed than their male partners. I imagine that, like false allegations and all the other complaints, they work both ways. I think that it doesn't help us make the system safer for children if we get into a men-versus-women argument. We do need to recognise our biases, but we need to accept that there are biases everywhere. It's not as if it would be only them who experience a bias. There are a lot of claims, for instance, that men are deprived of contact with their children and are not allowed to see their children; yet that happens in, I think, three per cent of cases. So, even when there are difficulties and even when there are allegations, usually some kind of access arrangement is worked out.

I haven't seen any evidence that the system is biased against men. I am sure that there are individual cases where there has been some. We are all humans, and there will be biases of all kinds. The more professional training you have, perhaps the more you recognise and manage those.

Ms STEGGALL: We've heard a lot of evidence around parental alienation. You touched on parental estrangement, which is interesting not just because there is a period of time when one parent maybe doesn't see a child, but also because behaviour that may well be unconscious behaviour results in an estrangement with the child. You deal with children a lot in your work, don't you?

Ms O'Brien : I have done. I don't currently, but I have done.

Ms STEGGALL: What would be your anecdotal experience in terms children ending up choosing one parent over the other? Is that because they are aware of a high level of conflict between the parents? Do you think it's because one parent is sort of forcing that child to choose against the other parent, or is it more that the child is trying to find their pathway through parents who ultimately have a high level of conflict?

Ms O'Brien : There isn't a single answer to that because things differ from family to family and situation to situation. I have certainly seen many children in my counselling room who are afraid of a parent, usually their father. I can remember children asking me how to be brave when their father comes to pick them up, and children who thought they had found a good place to hide when they are about to be picked up. I have certainly spoken to mothers who carry children kicking and screaming out to the car for access. It seems to me that, if you're a parent and your child needs to be forced to be with you, the ideal thing would be to get some professional help to reconnect you with your child. What happens in more of the cases I see is that the parent will take a legal or a punitive response. I think there is also an aspect of what you might call parental alienation which is sometimes called domestic violence by proxy. That's where the behaviour by a parent towards a child is intended to hurt the other parent, or to hurt the child because they have expressed a preference for the other parent. This is a very common kind of scenario, but I don't see very much written or said about it. It's things like taking things that the other parent has given the child; telling a child that the other parent doesn't love them or doesn't want to be with them—an example that Senator Hanson gave before; telling a child that the other parent is not coming to pick them up because they don't love them; or using some nasty kind of favouritism between siblings and that sort of thing.

That can also lead to a child not wanting to be with a parent, but it's nothing to do with parent alienation; it's to do with that parent's behaviour. Sometimes, though, that can lead to a child actually being alienated from a parent that the other parent routinely disparages. So it is very complex. The more we have experts in child development involved in the decision-making for particular families, the more we will be able to unpack and address those kinds of issues.

Ms STEGGALL: Thank you. That's very interesting in that it's not about understanding that the alienation of children from a parent occurs; it's about understanding the why—the blaming of the other parent as opposed to the understanding from the child's perspective of why they may have gone down that path.

Ms O'Brien : That's right. Unfortunately, there are parents who hate their ex-partner more than they love their child.

Ms STEGGALL: Yes, unfortunately. One of your recommendations is to move to an inquisitorial system versus an adversarial system. The difficulty is that it is a massive reshuffle of our system. Short of such a big transformation, are there any other recommendations that would maybe start us off down that pathway of a more inquisitorial system? I guess it is having the better experts, putting the domestic violence or the family violence experts higher up that list of experts that the court relies on. Are there any other mechanisms?

Ms O'Brien : I think there are some things that could be done. For example, there could probably be some tinkering you could do around having a faster means of settling small claim property matters. There are a few things under the 'tinkering' label you could do before you completely revamp the system. For me, the most important thing is to have proper risk assessments and mental health assessments carried out and to have scrutiny of those assessments—having people being able to question that. The advantage of a single expert system is that the court only has to listen to one person. But the problem with that is that, if there is no consistency in reports, it becomes a lottery, really, as to whether you'll get an outcome enforced that you feel is safe for your child. A complaints system within the court system is, I think, a better way of keeping professionals accountable. An inquisitorial system would probably incorporate some of that because the onus is then on the court officers—the judge or whoever they choose to assist to do the work—to gather the evidence and to make the decision.

As I said in the submission, there have been two excellent inquiries and reports just in the last few years, and they all made excellent recommendations—dozens and dozens of them. Going back and having a look at them will probably be more informative than I can be. I'm more concerned with what the issues are in relation to survivor experiences. This culture of not believing allegations and dismissing them and having a highly adversarial way of proceeding, really just gets in the way of good outcomes for children.

Ms STEGGALL: Lastly, you were talking about capping of fees. Do you believe, for example, that it would be beneficial having a system to cap the amount of interim applications you can make—to really cut through on that controlling aspect of lots of small applications to court—or having a more rigid time frame around when things have to happen? I compare it to the Children's Court system. They also have reports, for example, on children, but they have it mandatory, within six weeks. It's a much quicker and more efficient process. Are you familiar with that process?

Ms O'Brien : Yes, I have had experience with the Children's Court, because I've also worked in child protection. I think that any of those are helpful. They are the sorts of things that will change the experience for the better, but they're not the sorts of things that will actually change the culture. I think that the way that you do that is in the domain of your legal experts to talk about. I'm sure that legal aid or women's legal services will all have excellent ideas about how that can be assisted. Anything that makes it more efficient and also take a shorter time is better for children in the end. We know that what is difficult for children and what leads to ongoing issues is not that their parents have separated; it's the conflict that occurs around that. At the moment, being in the Family Court can mean that that conflict can go on for years.

Ms STEGGALL: Thank you very much for a very interesting submission.

CHAIR: Ms O'Brien, I think that has exhausted our questions. I again thank you for your submission and also for the discussion of it today.

Ms O'Brien : Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity.

Pr oceedings suspended from 13:35 to 13:56