The Age (Melbourne)
4 May 2009
Reference source: Push is on to review family lawBy Selma Milovanovic
A national campaign against family violence has called for urgent changes to the Family Law Act to protect children from violence by fathers during court-imposed access visits.
In 2006, to emphasise shared parenting, the act was amended to balance the need to protect a child from violence with the child's benefit of having a meaningful relationship with both parents.
But some experts say the two principles are contradictory in cases of family violence.
At a Melbourne rally of Mayday! Safer Family Law Campaign yesterday, family lawyer Sarah Vessali said court practitioners who were out of touch with issues of family violence needed to be better educated in protecting children from harm.
She called for more legal aid funding, saying many women faced court unrepresented as funding had been cut. She said contact centres, which helped domestic violence victims, and crisis accommodation also needed better funding.
Family Court Chief Justice Diana Bryant said some changes were needed, but in a speech last week she lashed out at campaign organisers, calling them "the loudest and most shrill of voices" who "succeed in attributing blame of the murder of a child to, and only to, the Family Court or family courts".
Chief Justice Bryant has written to federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland suggesting part of the act be repealed, as the wrong interpretation of the law meant some women in custody hearings were less likely to report violence to the court.
She said yesterday she was "hearing a persistent view that the existing legislation gives mixed messages and should have a more obvious protective focus".
The act obliges family courts to take undefined "prompt action" in cases where violence or risk of violence is raised.
In a speech at Queensland University of Technology last week, Chief Justice Bryant said she was concerned about a section of the act that orders the awarding of costs against the party that maliciously makes false allegations of violence.
She said it was commonly misunderstood by families and lawyers to mean costs would be awarded against the complainant if they could not prove the violent act occurred.
She is also urging a review of a part of the act that could be interpreted as unfavourably considering a parent who alleges violence.
Court statistics for 2007-08 show that in litigated cases, 50-50 custody was awarded in only 15 per cent of cases. In 6 per cent of cases the father was banned from contacting the children because of abuse and family violence.
Ms Vessali said she was frustrated by the Family Court which, in most cases, awarded access to children for violent fathers despite the intervention orders her clients held against them.