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Wednesday, 22 August 2018
Page: 8106


Ms O'TOOLE (Herbert) (12:29): I would like to acknowledge the member for Barton and her wonderful words, and the member for Cowan who spoke of her own personal experience with great courage and bravery. Not now, not ever. That is what all Australians must say to family and domestic violence. Family and domestic violence does not discriminate, it does not choose where it goes and it can happen in any strata of society. And although there have been numerous campaigns to end the scourge of family violence, the sad fact is it is still continuing and at alarming rates.

The facts and statistics regarding family violence are truly devastating for a nation such as Australia. These figures remind us that this issue is real and, unfortunately, rife across the nation. It is a national shame that, on average, one woman a week and one man a month are killed by a current or former partner. It is a national shame that one in three Australian women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15. It is a national shame that intimate-partner violence was the single greatest health risk for women aged between 25 and 44. It is a national shame that domestic and family violence is the principal cause of homelessness for women and their children. It is a national shame that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls are 35 times more likely than the wider female population to be hospitalised due to family violence. And it is a national shame that one in four children is exposed to domestic violence.

It is an atrocity that in my electorate of Herbert we have the second-highest number of domestic violence reports in the state per capita, according to police statistics. It is a devastating shame that this is an issue that has come down to statistics, but in reality that is exactly what seems to be happening. These statistics need to ring loudly and clearly, to all elected members, so that we act on this issue. And the time to act is now.

There are many organisations in the electorate of Herbert that are working hard and collaborating to address this issue. There is the work of the Women's Centre, often the only and last hope of a number of women experiencing domestic violence every day. There is the work of Sera's Women's Shelter that provides women and children seeking urgent shelter support and a roof over their heads at their most vulnerable time. Those organisations in my electorate are working hard to tackle family and domestic violence. It is essential that we in this place do so as well.

With those sobering statistics in mind, I welcome the intent of this bill, which aims to make a number of changes to how the family law system operates in this country in relation to family and domestic violence. It's main aim is to simplify the jurisdictions in which family matters can be heard and dealt with. To summarise its main provisions, the bill: would expand the powers of some state and territory courts, such as children's courts, so that these courts gain some family law parenting jurisdiction; would increase the property value threshold under which the state and territory courts can hear contested family law matters without both parties' consent; would allow for short-term judgements in interim matters before the state and territory courts; would remove the 21-day time limit that applies to a family law order that is revived, varied or suspended by a state or territory court when making an interim family violence order; would strengthen the power of the family law courts to summarily dismiss unmeritorious cases and vexatious claims; would remove the requirement that the court must explain certain matters to a child when that explanation would not be in the child's best interests; and would remove vastly outdated wording in the act that suggests marital rape and an obligation to perform marital services still exists in Australian law.

The other consideration is the major Australian Law Reform Commission's report into the Family Law Act and the family law system, which is due in March next year. This report will inevitably address how family violence matters are dealt with through the family law system. Labor has called for the government to wait until that report is published to consider how to best make the significant change to criminalise the breach of parenting protection injunctions and take action to legalise immediately thereafter. This would not impose a time delay in making this change. Under the original bill, the criminalisation of PPI breaches would not have come into force until 12 months after the royal assent—that is, after the publication of the Australian Law Reform Commission's report at the end of March. So the only difference excising this measure from the bill will make, in fact, will be to make it better in a more informed way, immediately after the publication of the Australian Reform Commission review. In fact, it could happen even earlier.

A contentious part of this bill is the expansion of some of the family law parenting jurisdiction to relevant state and territory magistrates courts. In principle, Labor supports this measure. If relatively simple parenting matters can be adjudicated in the same jurisdiction as other family law matters, that is a good thing for all parties involved. However, it is well known, and evidence provided at the Senate inquiry revealed, that state and territory magistrates courts are already incredibly under-resourced for the workloads that they have now. It is partly due to an increase in unrepresented litigants, thanks to cuts to legal aid and community legal centres' funding and inadequate funding for the judicial system in general.

Giving certain courts expanded jurisdiction with no extra funding is simply and completely unworkable. It is impossible to expect overstretched systems to take on more responsibility without more resources. It is just that simple. Moreover, the Law Council gave evidence during the relevant Senate inquiry that many state and territory courts do not actually exercise the family law jurisdiction that they already have, due to a lack of training and expertise. I provide a direct quote:

Many judicial officers in state and territory local courts do not have experience or knowledge of the family law jurisdiction, or have only limited knowledge and experience, and are reluctant to exercise their powers as a result.

The government has sought to allay these concerns by arguing that the expanded jurisdiction will first be tested through a series of pilots in different states and territories in conjunction with the governments. But once again I'm going to bring this back to funding, urging the government to put funding concerns first and foremost when considering the design of these pilots and to work cooperatively with state and territory governments and the court systems. It's imperative that these already struggling court systems are not pushed beyond the brink.

The government has expressed an intention to merge the Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court and gradually phase out the Family Court as a specialist division. It also wants to abolish the appeals division of the Family Court and have that responsibility instead become part of the Federal Court. There has been huge debate and discussion about this issue.

Although my sister is a family law barrister, I am not a lawyer. I have never been through or experienced the family law court system. However, in preparation for debates like this one here today, I wanted to be educated and aware of the issues on the ground. As such, at the invitation of Judge Coker, I spent a full day listening to and hearing the matters before the family law court. I witnessed a very professional and caring approach to what is in fact a very complex and distressing environment. I was surprised at the number of people who present to the court unrepresented. As such, this takes time from the judge and the court to ensure that procedural fairness is delivered to all parties. I also witnessed a strong focus on the needs of children, who are, sadly, caught up in these complicated cases.

Although Labor is yet to see any legislation in this space, I want to make my view very clear today on this matter. The combining of the Federal Court and the Family Court is in effect the downgrading of the importance of the Family Court. It is also a clear indication of just how out of touch the Turnbull government really are, as the family law court deals with the most complex cases. It is where the most traumatised and dysfunctional families' cases are heard. This change shows just how out of touch the government really are. They are seeking to put commercial matters ahead of complex family matters, a clear indication of the government's attitude towards understanding the complexities in the breakdown of families and the distress that it causes.

The Family Court deals with families where millions of dollars are involved in settlements, and matters before the court often take days or weeks before the judge. Currently the Family Court is on the same level as the Federal Court, but the suggested changes by this government will downgrade the Family Court, which would result in no more appointments of family law judges. Any changes to the Family Court must be done with the utmost care, as family law touches people's lives at a time when they are at their most vulnerable and distressed. It will be absolutely critical that the family law community be consulted in any of the change processes. Labor will ensure that we diligently scrutinise any and all of the changes that the government puts forward to our family law system.