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Monday, 9 November 2020
Page: 9095


Ms CLAYDON (Newcastle) (17:29): I'm very pleased to stand in the chamber to make a contribution to the debate on the Family Law Amendment (Risk Screening Protections) Bill 2020. This bill creates some important legislative protections to support the rollout of a domestic violence risk screening pilot program which will run in court registries in Adelaide, Brisbane and Parramatta. It's impossible to actually overstate the prominence of domestic violence in Family Court disputes today. Indeed, a 2016 audit of the work done by Legal Aid commissions in Australia found it to be a factor in a staggering 79 per cent of Legal Aid family law matters. As the first step in the risk assessment process in the courts, screening is critical. It's designed to identify people who might be at risk of family violence so that further investigation of preventive action may be taken.

Of course, Labor supports this bill. Stakeholders and frontline organisations have been pleading for a consistently applied national risk assessment tool for years. It was recommended by the Chisholm report in 2009. It was identified as a problem by the Law Council report in 2015. It was recommended by the Council of Australian Governments advisory panel on reducing violence against women and their children in 2016. It was a key recommendation of a parliamentary inquiry that the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs conducted into a better family law system to protect those experiencing family violence back in 2017. I remember it well because I was the deputy chair.

But let's not ever lose sight of the fact that this is not an abstract matter for committees to ponder and later forget. These are matters with very real and lasting human consequences. Indeed, in 2015, the coroner in the inquest into the death of Luke Batty identified the lack of a consistently applied risk assessment tool as a factor in that tragedy, yet here we are in the closing weeks of 2020, and the legislation has only just today come before the Australian parliament. The fact that this has taken so long—so many years—is frankly appalling and it doesn't say good things about the priorities of this government. Indeed, it points to the huge gap between the rhetoric and the action, between intent and delivery.

None of these risk screening trials could take place until this bill came before the chamber. As I said, people, frontline organisations have been calling for it for a long time, have been waiting and wondering the hold-up has been. Frankly, that is a very good question which only the government can answer. Nonetheless, we on this side of the House welcome the pilot project, make no mistake. We support this bill. It is a significant step forward. If the pilot is successful when we've done these rollouts in Brisbane, Adelaide and Parramatta then I fully expect the Morrison government to be ready to urgently fund the rollout of this program across the nation. But when it comes to the diabolical scourge of domestic violence, this is not simply enough. Foremost among the needs to make sure that Australian women and their children are kept safe is a stronger commitment of resources.

Back in 2017, when the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs did its inquiry into how, through the Family Court system, we might better support women and children fleeing violence or experiencing violence, stakeholders and services told us again and again that they cannot deliver what women and children need to remain safe with the very meagre resources they've been allocated. They told us they had to turn women away or take on the burden of providing the support themselves with no funding or by asking staff to work without pay.

Sadly, in 2020, I'm hearing exactly the same things echoed as deputy chair of the social policy and legal affairs committee's next inquiry, which is focused on family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia. Our courts and our judges are at breaking point, with people having to wait a year or more to have their cases heard. At the same time, the community organisations charged with assisting and supporting women and children fleeing from violence are buckling under the weight of unmet need. It's absolutely unforgivable that there was no new funding for the courts or our frontline service providers in this year's federal budget.

We also need greater investment in legal services, which play a profoundly important role in giving women the legal information, advice and support to successfully leave violent relationships. This has become even more urgent in recent months given the increase in the incidence of family and domestic violence during COVID-19. When the Australian Institute of Criminology surveyed 15,000 Australian women in May, it found that a staggering 8.2 per cent of those who live with their partners had experienced physical violence during the preceding three months. That is nearly one in 10 women. Of great concern is that nearly two-thirds of those women said this was the first time their partner had been violent with them.

If the federal government were serious about banishing the scourge of domestic violence, it would ensure that the courts and legal and community organisations have the resources to help those who need it. But it's not just funding that is needed. There is one thing that stakeholders have consistently put at the top of the list to drive down domestic violence that won't cost a cent, and that is the removal of the presumption of shared equal parental responsibility in custody cases. There is substantial evidence that this presumption is leading to inappropriate and, sometimes, downright dangerous parental arrangements. Even though there are exemptions available for families experiencing violence, they are very rarely used.

Only a matter of weeks ago, the Law Council of Australia, along with a series of frontline organisations, told the parliamentary inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence that this is the single most important priority to protect women and children in the family law system. To this end, the member for Moreton has already tabled a bill that does exactly this. In doing so, it ensures that children's interests are given the utmost priority in family law decisions. Protecting women and children must be absolutely central to the mission of our family courts and our social services system. I recognise that the bill before us today is a step forward, but we must urgently do so much more. We must provide proper resourcing to our courts, our legal services and our community sector, and we must immediately remove the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility in Family Court decisions.