13 September 2017

Speech: Parliamentary inquiry into family violence law reform

Please see below my speech in Parliament last night on the parliamentary inquiry I am chairing into family violence law reform.

“I rise to provide an update on the parliamentary inquiry into a better family law system to support and protect those affected by family violence. I am chairing this bipartisan inquiry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs considering how the family law system can be improved to support and protect those affected by family violence.

The inquiry is underpinned by the very strong principle that your voice matters. To date we’ve received over 120 submissions, and some 5,200 people, many of whom have been affected by family violence, have responded to a questionnaire, telling of their personal experience with the family law system.

Family violence is a scourge across Australia. One in four Australian women experiences intimate partner violence. One woman on average is killed in Australia every week by a partner or former partner. Three women are hospitalised every week in Australia with a traumatic brain injury caused by their partner or former partner, and Indigenous women are 35 times more likely to be hospitalised by family violence than other women.

Let me say that I don’t think most Australians comprehend the seriousness of this issue in Indigenous communities. I certainly didn’t. In a recent public hearing in Alice Springs, the committee heard how most women are falling through the gaps, trapped in a vortex of family violence fuelled by alcohol, poverty and disadvantage. The situation is so serious that the Alice Springs Women’s Shelter is in reality a homicide prevention centre. Women are locked up to keep them safe, to prevent them from being murdered. It is absolutely frightening.

I’m very proud of the work our government has done to date, committing $200 million in new funding under the Women’s Safety Package and the third action plan to address family violence. This includes $18.5 million for integrated duty lawyer and family violence support services. There’s more than $10 million to hire family consultants and $12.7 million to establish parenting management hearing trials to give better access to justice for self-represented litigants, and we are acting to stop perpetrators cross-examining victims of family violence.

I cannot, of course, pre-empt any recommendations that the committee might make, but to date we’ve received some compelling evidence that urgent reform of the family law system is required. This includes evidence that allegations of family violence should be determined early in proceedings to ensure that the right parenting orders are made and that the safety of children is put first. This, we heard, is also critical for people against whom false allegations of family violence are made. This can be absolutely soul destroying, as we all know.

There are concerns that too many people are falling through the cracks. Some witnesses have proposed that magistrates courts should have powers of referral to the family courts and better support to exercise the family law jurisdiction and deal with all parenting and family violence matters in the one court.

There are concerns about family report writers, including their training, the quality of work and their charges, which can run up to $9,000 a day.

We’ve heard that the family law system should support mediation for families affected by family violence. At the moment, through a 60I certificate, those families are often excluded from mediation and then left to cope in the wilderness, trying to commence proceedings in the courts and access justice.

The cost of justice is a very significant issue, as are the challenges facing culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

Some witnesses have told us that our adversarial system can lead to systems abuse and horrific systems abuse. We’ve heard of cases where some people have incurred costs of $300,000 or $400,000, and this, of course, also leads to greater hostility between parties. The concern is that the adversarial system is just not fit for purpose when it comes to matters concerning parenting and family violence.

This is a very important inquiry. I’m so grateful to the many thousands of men and women who’ve told their story. Their voices really do matter.”

13 September 2017