For many years the Australian community has been extremely concerned about contact and residency issues following marriage and relationship breakdown and their experiences with the Family Court and the Child Support Agency. These have been critical issues brought to the daily agenda of members of parliament by their constituents. Several major parliamentary inquiries and a number of other inquiries have looked into these matters, but the problems persist. Different solutions are obviously needed.
Prior to the 2006 Family Law Amendments, parliamentarians were dealing on a daily basis with constituent's complaints about unfair, life destroying and emotionally and financially devastating family law matters. Since the introduction of the revolutionary and sensible Family Law reforms arising from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs Inquiry of December 2003, entitled 'Every Picture Tells a Story', family law issues have been subdued to such a point that parliamentarians have fewer such issues brought to their attention in any one year. On this evidence alone, the 2006 Family law Reforms have been an outstanding success.
As the leading expert representative body in these matters, the Shared Parenting Council of Australia has been at the forefront of receiving separating parent's assessments and commentary through face to face dealings with Litigants, Self-Represented Litigants, Parents, Stakeholders in the family law area and through many other channels.
We had proposed additional measures in the enquiries that lead to the 2006 amendments and have been supportive of two key principles.
- A presumption that, where there is no physical violence and abuse that the starting point when parents separate is equal time and that time is then adjusted to that which is workable and requested by the parents.
- That the Parliament of Australia in recognising the fundamental right of every child to experience the love, guidance and companionship of both parents after their separation or divorce declares that it is the public policy of the Commonwealth to assure minor children of an equal opportunity and relationship with both parents, after the parents have separated or dissolved their marriage and to require parents to share the rights, duties and responsibilities of child rearing to affect this policy.
The Shared Parenting Council fully supported the extensive report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs, entitled Every Picture Tells A Story (The report). Whilst we were disappointed that a default equal parenting arrangement was not accepted by that committee, we did however agree with the overwhelming majority of its findings.
At that time the Liberal Government and Labor opposition had accepted the vast majority of those recommendations as detailed in the report and had accepted all the key recommendations that the Shared Parenting Council of Australia had put forward as sound logical amendments.
Although the 2006 amendments to the Family Law Act have had a significant impact on parenting matters, complaints about the operation and procedural fairness of the Child Support Agency, have not reduced significantly and this is an area that the Shared Parenting Council has been actively involved in and agrees is needing further legislative revision.
In 2011 a raft of new changes was proposed and debated and we were confronted with legislation that appeared, on face value, to go a long way towards undoing all of the positive reforms achieved through the 2006 amendments and with potential to send the system back towards an operation reminiscent of the dark days of family law prior to 2005. It was almost inconceivable that such circumstances could arise so quickly, and in getting to this point, the Government's own research, conducted by the Institute of Family Studies with over 20,000 respondents had been largely ignored.
The SPCA believes that Family and Child Support issues are critically important issues for our society and for this reason we have contributed extensively to submissions to assist the Senate, and the Parliament to assist in finding workable reforms that have the desired effect of improving, where possible, legislation in this regard and ensuring that in doing so, we do not 'throw the baby out with the bath water'.
It is paramount that the best interests of the child remains the focal point of legislative reform, in all of the considerations that principle entails. The SPCA has spent considerable time reviewing legislation. The SPCA fully supports evidence based reforms and is sceptical and dismissive of anecdotal evidence when no empirical evidence of any kind supports unfounded assertions.