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Monday, 9 November 2020
Page: 9089

Mr HAWKE (MitchellMinister for International Development and the Pacific and Assistant Defence Minister) (17:05): I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill and move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Australian government is committed to addressing family violence and continuing to improve the protections offered through the family law system to those vulnerable families affected by violence and abuse. In December this year the government announced $13.5 million for the federal family law courts to pilot a trial systematic approach for the screening of matters of family safety risks and triaging matters into case management pathways according to their identified level of risk. This will include a specialist family violence list for high risk matters. The Family Law Amendment (Risk Screening Protections) Bill 2020 will support the effective implementation of these important new family safety risk screening and triage processes. The new family safety risk screening processes will improve the identification of and responses to family safety risks in family law matters to better achieve outcomes for families navigating the family law system.

The bill reflects the government's commitment to ongoing improvements to the family law system so that families can resolve matters safely, fairly and quickly. The $13.5 million funding for the pilot of risk screening measures builds on the government's heavy investment in addressing domestic violence, with $340 million in funding as part of the Fourth Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022, a $150 million COVID-19 domestic violence support package and around $20 million in additional legal assistance funding to support those affected by domestic violence during the pandemic.

The bill and the pilot also responds to findings from reports examining the law system, including: the family law council's Family with complex needs and the intersection of the family law and child protection systems; the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs 2017 inquiry called a better family law system to support and protect those affected by family violence; and the Australian law reform commission's 2019 report Family law for the future: An inquiry into the family law system.

A new pilot of the new family safety risk screening process will operate from 2020-22 from the Brisbane, Parramatta and Adelaide court registries, which each collectively receive more than 42 per cent of filings. During the pilot a dedicated team within the courts will screen newly filed parenting matters for safety risks and triage and manage matters according to their level of identified risk. A family counsellor will take early action in high risk cases, including conducting a follow up risk assessment, developing safety and wellbeing plans and offering referrals to support services. A specialist family violence list, the Evatt List, named in honour of the Hon. Elizabeth Evatt AC, will be established to manage and resolve high-risk matters. The Evatt List will be supported by a judge led multidisciplinary team, including registrars and family counsellors. The new risk screening and triage processes will be complemented by tailored court processes, safety planning and referrals to support services of at risk families.

The bill will also make minor amendments to the Family Law Act in order to support the new risk screening processes by protecting information that will be generated through the new risks screening processes, which are based off existing Family Law Act provisions.

The bill will ensure that information obtained or generated through the risk-screening process cannot be disclosed, except in limited circumstances. Important exceptions to this confidentiality will enable disclosure if it is necessary to protect a child from the risk of harm or to prevent or lessen serious threats to the life, health or property of a person. These confidentiality provisions are consistent with existing family-counselling provisions in the Family Law Act.

The bill will also ensure that information obtained or generated through the new risk-screening process is inadmissible in any court or tribunal. A critical exception will apply where family safety risk-screening information or evidence indicates that a child has been abused or is at risk of abuse. These admissibility provisions are also consistent with existing family-counselling provisions of the Family Law Act.

By ensuring the confidentiality and the inadmissibility of information obtained through risk screening, the bill will enable parties to freely and confidentially participate in this process. This is especially important for protecting family violence victims in high-risk cases and for maintaining the accuracy and reliability of the risk-screening information and triage matters. The confidentiality and inadmissibility protections for risk-screening information are also appropriate, because the intention is the early identification and management of safety concerns and to provide an appropriate case management pathway for matters, including referring high-risk cases to a dedicated court list. The risk-screening information is not intended to serve the same purpose as or replace evidence in proceedings, which is provided through the usual methods, including the notices of risk that form part of existing practice.

Finally, the bill will provide immunity for court officials, such as registrars and family counsellors, when undertaking new non-judicial roles as part of the risk-screening process. This immunity reflects the protection currently afforded to family consultants under the Family Law Act. It will support court workers to carry out the new functions involved in risk screening, such as making referrals and triaging matters into case management pathways based on risk-screening information.

This bill will enhance the family law system's approach to risk identification and management and improve outcomes for vulnerable families. It is another example of this government's continuing commitment to addressing family violence in Australia and to ensuring that the family law system protects victims of family violence.