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Monday, 9 November 2020
Page: 9093


Mr WALLACE (Fisher) (17:21): It never ceases to amaze me how those members opposite, the member for Isaacs in particular, are able to twist a good-news story around what the government is doing to help end the scourge of domestic violence into a partisan political point-scoring exercise. It is very disappointing but absolutely typical.

Domestic and family violence does not occur in a vacuum. It can never be excused, but some of the factors that commonly precede it can be identified. Among these, stress, alcohol and substance abuse, anger, and frustration are prevalent. For those who are going through the family courts, these factors can become acute. It is no surprise in this context that there were between 700 and 800 formal notices of family violence filed in the Family Court of Australia in each of the past three years. These formal notices are only the tip of the iceberg, with many more allegations of domestic and family violence being made in affidavits provided to the courts. The court's own data suggests that a further 37 per cent of women who experience domestic violence never disclose it while interacting with the family law system.

This House's Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, of which I am chair, has been conducting an inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence. Hearings for this inquiry are ongoing, and I will not pre-empt the committee's findings and recommendations. I would like to acknowledge the presence in the chamber of my deputy chair on that committee, who will no doubt be speaking on the Family Law Amendment (Risk Screening Protections) Bill 2020. However, I can inform the House that, in the evidence which the committee has received to date, many witnesses have seen a role for the family courts—when I say 'family courts' I'm talking about the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court—in helping to reduce the impact of domestic violence.

I'm pleased to say that the Morrison government, too, recognises this role. That's why, in December 2019, this government announced a pilot program known as the Lighthouse Project, with a funding allocation of $13½ million. This pilot program will take place in the Adelaide, Brisbane and Parramatta registries of the two federal family law courts over the next two years. The pilot will use an online risk-screening questionnaire to allow early identification and the ongoing monitoring of the risk of family and domestic violence in families going through the court system. It will be a more systematic process to avoid families falling through the cracks and it will ensure that risks to vulnerable individuals can be proactively managed on an ongoing basis. Those who are identified as being at risk will be provided with information about planning for their safety and where they can find support. Their cases will be managed by a specialist judge-led multidisciplinary team, including registrars, family counsellors and legal support, and will be prioritised based on the level of risk.

However, one important factor remains to be locked in before the pilot can proceed, and that is to make sure that all parties can have complete confidence that the sensitive information they reveal by taking part in the questionnaire will not be released to anyone else and cannot be used to influence their own case. That is what the bill before the House will address. The bill will provide unequivocally that information obtained or generated through the risk-screening process is inadmissible in family law or in any other type of legal proceedings. The one and only exception to this inadmissibility would be in cases where the risk screening information indicates that a child under 18 has been abused or is at risk of abuse and that information is not accessible from other sources.

Although we must encourage parties to a family law matter to make open and thorough disclosures, we also need to keep the purpose of the system in mind. The risk-screening process exists to protect individuals from serious harm, and where disclosure of the information gathered through the process would achieve that purpose it is appropriate that such disclosure should be required. As such, the bill provides that officers and staff, members of the court, family counsellors, contractors and subcontractors involved in the risk-screening process must not disclose the information gathered. However, it also provides for a series of exemptions designed to protect the individuals involved from serious harm. In particular, information may be disclosed if it would protect a child from physical or psychological harm, or reduce a serious and imminent threat to the life or health of any person. It would allow information to be disclosed if a crime involving violence or the threat of violence toward a person has been committed or is likely to be committed as well as if a similar offence involving the criminal removal or damage of a person's property is involved.

This government is already investing heavily in addressing domestic and family violence. In March 2019 this government allocated $340 million in funding as part of the Fourth Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. During this pandemic we have provided another $150 million to respond to the increased prevalence and impact created by the COVID-19 crisis, which my committee has received so much evidence about.

In my own community on the Sunshine Coast the Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services joined me and the member for Fairfax just last week to announce that local not-for-profit community housing provider Coast2Bay are receiving $2.6 million of Morrison government funding. This investment will be used by Coast2Bay to purchase eight new dwellings at two sites on the Sunshine Coast which will be used as emergency accommodation for women and their children who are escaping domestic and family violence.

This funding is being delivered to Coast2Bay under the Safe Places Emergency Accommodation grants. I'm grateful to the assistant minister for recognising the terrific work that Andrew Elvin, Lee Banfield and the team at Coast2Bay are doing. I look forward to next year when this new accommodation will be providing a way out for hundreds of vulnerable women and children on the Sunshine Coast. In the context of this $490 million investment, this bill will facilitate another critical part of the Morrison government's comprehensive action to combat domestic and family violence. I commend the bill to the House.