SPEECH TO THE ALBURY-WODONGA FAMILY PATHWAYS NETWORK EVENT
FRIDAY 24 JULY 2009
First, may I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we meet on and pay my respects to their elders, both past and present.
- Chair, Ms Rebecca Eberle, Co-ordinator, Albury Wodonga Family Pathways Network;
- Distinguished guests; and
- Ladies and gentlemen.
Thank you for your welcome this morning it s a great pleasure to return to Albury Wodonga.
Back in February, I spoke about the value of partnerships those that plug directly into the community.
The Albury Wodonga Family Pathways Network is a good example of what can be achieved.
This morning I would like to share with you my ideas for how collaboration can create a strong safety net to better protect families from harm.
There is great divergence in opinion about how our family law system should function, and I receive correspondence every day from individuals and interest groups about their experience with the system and how it has impacted on their lives.
Despite these differences, there is a constant on which we all agree, and that is the protection from harm of those who come into contact with the family law system.
This is integral to ensuring that the horrifying impact of family violence on women and children is not ignored or underestimated.
Family violence is not a new issue, but it is one that demands our constant attention and commitment to scrutinizing existing laws and practices.
I believe that at the moment there are still too many families that slip through the safety net.
Complex problems rarely have simple solutions and they can t be overcome by taking action in isolation.
To address violence we need to identify holes in the system, and collaborate to tighten the safety net.
It's not enough to look for holes in the law, or in court processes or in the delivery of services, or any of these things on their own.
Our safety net must provide the tightest protection possible for families negotiating the family law system.
Current Government Initiatives
The Government s priority is to protect children and families from harm.
To bring fresh energy to this crucial issue and to advise us on a plan to better address violence against women and children, we established the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children.
The Committee's report, Time for Action, was released in April and we have progressed a majority of the priority recommendations.
I must commend my colleague the Hon. Tanya Plibersek, Minister for the Status of Women, for her work on this.
The Government will consider the remaining recommendations as we develop our National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women in the coming months.
In his address to the National Council in April, the Prime Minister spoke of the Government s commitment to providing national leadership in reducing violence.
And to accept the challenge of working together with all levels of government and the community sector to make a difference.
The Government is working with the States and Territories to develop a comprehensive approach to protecting children across Australia from harm.
This national strategy, outlined in the Council of Australian Government s (COAG) document, Protecting Children is Everyone s Business, was endorsed by COAG in April.
Measures to address family violence will assist the Government's effort to halve homelessness by 2020, as we now know that family violence is the principle cause of homelessness among young women with children.
It is paramount that our family law system is capable of identifying and responding to violence.
It must be a system which families can trust to protect them from harm.
I want to ensure that the complexity of violence, in the context of family separation, receives the attention it deserves.
In short, in this area it is essential that we have a system that is and is seen to be accountable in its response to family violence.
Evaluation of 2006 Changes
As you may know, the Australian Institute of Family Studies is conducting an evaluation of the 2006 family law reforms. The Institute is due to report at the end of this year.
I intend to await the findings of the Institute's report before proposing legislative change.
If it becomes clear that current laws and practices may jeopardise the safety of families and children, we must work together to address these shortcomings.
It is imperative that all legitimate concerns about family violence are raised so that the courts can make informed decisions.
The family courts are capable of testing the veracity of the claims and disclosures made before it.
They do so every day and in every case they hear.
Once the Institute has finalised its report, I will look closely at its recommendations and I will take whatever steps are available to redress deficiencies in the law that affect the safety of women and children.
The law needs to be abundantly clear that the family law system is the forum to raise family violence concerns.
While we await the Institute s findings, there are a range of measures we can take to better respond to violence in the family law system.
Education and Training, Screening and Assessment
As part of the Government's response to the Time for Action Report, the Government is developing a multi-disciplinary training package to improve consistency in the handling of cases involving family violence, and ensure professionals are properly equipped to work with families at risk.
The aim of this package is:
- to assist professionals to identify family violence;
- to educate professionals about the damaging impact of family violence on children;
- to provide guidance on how the family law system deals with family violence; and
- to ensure professionals are aware of reporting obligations, especially where they have information that a child may be at risk of harm.
It is essential that professionals in the family law system gain the trust of families, as without it they cannot provide appropriate support and advice, or identify families at risk.
Accordingly, my Department will also oversee the development of national guidelines for family law system professionals. These guidelines will support a minimum level of screening and assessment for family violence across the broader family law system ensuring it is identified in a consistent way.
By establishing a common understanding of how information has been collected, the Guidelines will promote greater trust amongst professionals about the information provided in an assessment.
Improved Interaction with the State and Territory Child Welfare System
Australia has two systems that can alter parental responsibility for a child the family law system and the child protection system.
Each is responsible for protecting children from harm and upholding their best interests.
However, we fail children who fall through the holes created by confusion about jurisdictional responsibilities.
For this reason, we also need to look at opportunities to strengthen linkages between State and Commonwealth services and between legal and non-legal services.
In this regard, I will be seeking the support of my State and Territory colleagues at the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General (SCAG) meeting in a few weeks, to improve the interaction between these two systems.
I am also conscious about concerns that the threshold for mandatory reporting in the Family Law Act is too low.
For example, family counsellors and family dispute resolution practitioners arguably spend too much valuable time writing reports which may never be able to be acted upon because of jurisdictional boundaries.
Furthermore, State and Territory authorities arguably spend too much valuable time sifting through reports to work out what information their authority permits them to act upon.
We need to eliminate any such inefficiencies because they divert us from our primary task of helping families.
By examining the reporting thresholds we do not, however, want to create bigger gaps.
While a legislative protection might change, our moral and ethical one will not.
I am convinced that in a chaotic world for children and families, collaboration can be the catalyst for protecting children and their parents from harm.
The Magellan case management model introduced in 1998 has assisted the courts to respond to the needs of children who have suffered serious physical and sexual abuse.
It brings together the family courts, police and child protection agencies to ensure the Court has all the information it needs to make a decision in the very best interest of the child.
I am keen to explore opportunities to expand this model to a broader range of cases where there has been violence.
I also want to ensure there is nothing about the practises and procedures in the courts which might act as a disincentive to people disclosing concerns about safety, and that they get the appropriate support when those concerns are there.
I am pleased to announce today that I have recently commissioned a review of federal family court processes in the context of family violence.
Professor Richard Chisholm, a former Family Court judge, has agreed to lead this review.
He will consult relevant experts on family violence and examine whether the practices and procedures in the family courts encourage appropriate disclosures of family violence, and whether appropriate support is provided within the family court system for families who have experienced or are at risk of violence.
This review will make recommendations about how the system can better respond to and support the families who come before them.
I have asked Professor Chisholm to take into account the recent case involving Darcey Freeman in considering recommendations for change.
Professor Chisholm will report by the end of the year to enable me to consider the findings together with the Institute s evaluation of the 2006 reforms.
Legal Assistance Pilot
As family law system professionals I am sure you are all too familiar with the vigorous debate about the appropriateness of alternative dispute resolution for families experiencing violence.
Where it is appropriate and where families choose to mediate, I am concerned to ensure the process is as safe and effective as possible.
In assisting families to exercise choice in resolving their separation disputes, I am funding a pilot program to provide legal representation in mediation sessions to families who have experienced violence or are at risk of it.
This is in addition to my recent announcement to allocate $3.6 million to assist partnerships between Family Relationship Centres and Community Legal Centres.
This pilot is important given that I have recently decided to remove the absolute prohibition on the participation of lawyers in dispute resolution processes run by Family Relationship Centres.
My view is that, in the right circumstances, lawyers can assist parties to resolve their disputes out of court, including in family matters.
Guidelines will soon be issued to the Centres setting out the circumstances in which lawyers may be included in the family dispute resolution process.
Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) Inquiry
Further to the measures I have just mentioned and in order to assist us to achieve a safety net which is as tight as possible, I am very pleased to announce today that the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) will conduct an extensive inquiry intended to identify gaps in the law to assist us to reduce violence against women and their children.
The inquiry will be jointly undertaken with the New South Wales Law Reform Commission, in conjunction with other jurisdictions.
The inquiry will look at two important issues raised in the National Council's report:
- It will examine the interaction of State and Territory laws relating to family violence and child protection with Commonwealth family laws and criminal laws to determine whether changes are required to better protect women and children; and
- It will examine the impact of the inconsistent interpretation or application of laws in cases of sexual assault occurring in the context of family violence, on the victims of violence.
I have instructed the Commission to report on these issues by the end of July 2010.
Victims of violence should not have to battle ambiguities or irregularities in the laws which are supposed to protect them.
I am confident the Commissions will identify and recommend practical changes we can make.
There will always be differing perspectives about how our family law system should function, especially from those individuals and groups directly affected by its laws and processes.
But despite these different views there can be no question of the importance of protecting women and children from harm.
I am confident that the initiatives I have announced today tug on a range of different strands and will assist us to tighten the safety net.
These measures, which are a direct contribution to the National Plan, include:
- a training package for family law system professionals and the development of minimum screening guidelines;
- a pilot of legally assisted mediation for families experiencing violence;
- Professor Chisholm s review of the family court practice and procedure; and
- the ALRC enquiry.
Professionals in the family law system can be most effective by collaborating to ensure a strong safety net against family violence.
I invite you to continue your work in partnership with the community and the Government so that we can progress these important initiatives for families.
On behalf of the Government I thank you all for your valuable work in assisting Australian families.