Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 22 August 2018
Page: 8103

Ms BURNEY (Barton) (12:15): I pay tribute to the member for Cowan for her extraordinarily brave words and the honesty with which she has spoken to the Family Law Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill 2018. I think that the really important point the member for Cowan was making was that, when it comes to this issue of family violence, it does not discriminate. Family violence is an entrenched problem within the Australian community, and the member for Cowan's call for action, not just words, is something we must hear—and not just hear but actually move on. So I thank her very much for sharing her personal story, which is not an easy thing to do in this situation.

We've listened to the member for Cowan and we've heard other members, including the member for Lindsay, talk about their personal experiences. That really is a brave and important thing to do, because other women and other people who have been affected by family violence, be it physical, psychological, financial, sexual or the various other forms of violence that are perpetrated, will be able to see that this does affect all rungs of society—that this does affect all people. They will take heart and will take an enormous amount of bravery from the words of the member for Cowan, so thank you.

I think what we've also heard is of the picture that's been painted of what it means, not just for individuals but what it actually means for the families who live in households where violence is a factor. I know personally that the intergenerational trauma and effect of violence is substantial. I note that the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources is in the House today. I'm sure that some of the stories he's hearing from families who are stressed and have things happening that they're not used to would be that they're experiencing similar things.

The tentacles of family violence are long, insidious and far-reaching. It is absolutely the business of all of us—it's our responsibility as lawmakers—to turn words into action. We know from the fear, the anxiety and the urgency—not only for personal safety but for the safety of children—that this is such an important piece of legislation. I rise, as have my colleagues, to support this piece of legislation.

Unfortunately for many, there is the added anxiety of managing legal proceedings through the family law system. I've just had a meeting with a woman who talks and works with victims of domestic and family violence. She works in the court system. She was sharing with me some of the enormous challenges, particularly for people who are going through these horrors and who then, somehow, have to try and pull themselves together to actually deal with the legal side of it. That is not just about the head but about the heart as well. Unfortunately for many, there is that added anxiety. It should be easier, simpler and less confusing. It should function to protect victims of domestic violence.

The Family Law Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill 2018 will do a number of things. It will reduce interactions with multiple courts through a number of jurisdictional reforms and streamlining federally and among the states and territories. It will allow parties to resolve related matters to reduce the need for litigation, which is so important. It will increase the property value threshold under which state and territory courts can hear contested family law property matters without both parties' consent. Courts will no longer be required to explain details of family violence to children when it is not in their best interest. For me, that is one of the most important functions of this bill. It will also remove the 21-day time limit on reviving, varying or suspending family violence orders. That is important because putting a mandatory 21-day time frame on that is extraordinarily difficult for people who are going through trauma and incredible upheaval. It will also abolish outdated text that potentially condones marital rape—and I don't have to speak to this House about how important abolishing that outdated, offensive part of the legislation is.

On the whole, Labor supports this bill because it will strengthen the powers of the courts to protect victims of family violence. It will also foster the resolution of family law disputes by state and territory courts. We know how daunting legal proceedings and resolving family related matters in the courts can be. It can be a particularly anxious time when it involves threats of harm and when it involves children. The fear and anxiety is compounded by the fact that parties must navigate different jurisdictions. It can be confusing and it can be time-consuming. It can take not only a financial toll but also an extraordinarily huge emotional and, often, physical toll.

Under this bill, specialist children's courts will have the power to make parenting orders pursuant to the Family Law Act. The bill will also extend the jurisdiction of state and territory courts to make orders in family law property matters by including disputes above the current monetary limit of $20,000. Labor supports extending the jurisdiction of state and territory courts in family law matters to make it easier and less confusing for families navigating the system at a time when there is enormous upheaval, trauma and distress. It will reduce the need to have to navigate both the state and federal court systems.

However, we are concerned that already overburdened state and territory courts will not have the capacity for the extended workload without a significant increase to their resources. That is a really important point that Labor is stressing: an increase in resources to make these reforms work is absolutely crucial. This is a concern that has been expressed by many stakeholders in the family violence prevention space. Women's Legal Services Australia, for example, in their submission on this bill, said:

The experience of WLSA member lawyers in state and territory courts is that there is already a pressing demand for court services and a lack of resources for these courts to hear matters in a timely and effective manner.

Our further experience is that as state and territory courts exercise their limited family law jurisdiction infrequently, few have the requisite expertise to properly hear and determine family law property and parenting matters.

State and territory courts also lack access to the services and systems currently available to assist decision-makers in family courts.

It is for all of the above reasons that we posit, alongside the Family Law Council, that state and territory courts will require a significant injection of resources.

The government cannot take credit for these reforms unless there are resources that go along with them.

The Law Council states:

It is clear that there will be financial implications for state and territory courts arising from any increase in the family law work consequent upon these amendments.

The last thing we want is for parties to family law disputes being caught in bureaucrat bottlenecks on top of an already difficult circumstance. If we want to properly realise the intent of these amendments then appropriate resources, including increased funding and ongoing judicial training, must accompany these amendments.

We recognise, as Women's Legal Services Australia does, the need to reduce the abuse of the family law system by perpetrators through providing for the summary dismissal of frivolous, vexatious or unmeritorious claims. The proposed amendment would set a test for applications to the court to have a reasonable prospect of success. The Family Law Act already contains powers to summarily dismiss claims. The Law Council therefore says that it cannot envisage how the reasonable-prospect-of-success test would change the current power vested in the court to dismiss a claim. Women's Legal Services Australia is also concerned about these costs. Women's Legal Services Australia said it could potentially be used as a threat to deter real and legitimate family court orders or applications.

As I have said, the important thing is that there is proper resourcing and that victims are properly listened to and their circumstances considered in these cases. To this end, Labor is concerned that these provisions may have unintended consequences and potentially work to the disadvantage of disempowered victims. Labor believes that this provision should be reviewed after a two-year period, and the provision is very much set out in the texts that I have in front of me.

Finally, Labor recognise the need to ensure compliance with injunctions and court orders, in particular, those relating to personal protection. In principle, we support the criminalisation of breaches of personal protection injunctions. However, we also recognise the concerns around the practical implementation of criminal penalties underpinning such court interventions. Under the measure, as proposed, the criminal penalties could apply retrospectively—not in the sense that it would apply to past breaches, but in the sense that it could apply to orders issued prior to the commencement of these measures. As we have heard from the Law Council of Australia, it is often the case that personal protection orders are entered into by consent. It is often the case that many parties informally vary or discharge such protection orders, so it is foreseeable that unintended consequences could arise from this measure. I note that the Australian Law Reform Commission will be reporting on this issue in 12 months time. Again, Labor recognise the need for such protection orders and for the people they seek to protect to be treated with the utmost importance and seriousness. We must ensure that we do so appropriately and that we get this right.

In conclusion, Labor supports this bill. It will make it easier for victims of family violence to seek stronger protection under the family law framework, and it will make it easier for victims to seek that protection. In order for the aspirations of this bill to be realised, we must ensure these measures receive the necessary resources—as I have outlined in my speech today on this bill—and that they are calibrated to optimally protect the interests of the vulnerable and avoid the two unintended consequences that I have also outlined.

This is an issue, as I stated at the very beginning, that is fundamental to the way in which we see ourselves as a society. It is fundamental to all of us in this place, as law makers, that we make this not just words but very strong action. It is the responsibility of all of us. Once again, I recognise the member for Cowan's speech and the fact that family violence does not discriminate. I say to the people who are affected by this dreadful aspect of our society to take heart from the sentiments being expressed in this debate, to be brave and to know that you have the support of this parliament.