The time to implement family law reform is now – A message from safe steps CEO Annette Gillespie

It is commendable that the Federal Government is conducting a comprehensive review of the family law system due to release its findings in 2019, writes safe steps CEO Annette Gillespie. But the recently released recommendations of a previous family violence and family law parliamentary inquiry should not be put on hold until then.

Last month, the Parliamentary Inquiry into a Better Family Law System to Support and Protect Those Affected by Family Violence released its final report. safe steps made a submission to the Inquiry and we were pleased to see that the report included several important recommendations that we and other organisations strongly advocated for. These include:

  • That the Australian Government develop a comprehensive and mandatory national family violence training program to be undertaken by all family law professionals – including court staff, family consultants and Independent Children’s Lawyers – to ensure all workers understand the complexities of family violence and how abuse can affect people involved in family law proceedings.
  • That the Australian Government consider extending the Family Advocacy and Support Services (FASS) Program to a greater number of Family Court locations so that family violence survivors have access to specialist support workers whose role it is to emotionally and practically support survivors throughout court proceedings.
  • That more specialist family violence court divisions be trialled in Magistrates Courts across Australia, enabling family law issues in family violence cases to be determined by one court rather than being dealt with by federal Family Courts and state Magistrates Courts.

In September, before the report cited above was released, the Federal Government announced a further “major review of Australia’s family law system” to be undertaken by the Australian Law Reform Commission. The findings of that review are expected to be released in 2019.

I commend the Government for conducting an in-depth review – there is no doubt problems within the family law system are complex and require careful, holistic examination – but, we at safe steps also recognise that family violence survivors are, right now, suffering under the current inadequate family law system.

Addressing some of the basic issues of the Family Court should not be put on hold for another year while the Australian Law Reform Commission review takes place. Vital reforms, including those listed above, must be implemented as soon as possible.

Failure to implement basic reforms now will ensure more family violence survivors, adults and children, continue to suffer unnecessarily under the current system.

The process for beginning simple but critical reforms – such as ensuring all family court staff receive adequate training to understand family violence, or broadening the FASS Program to new locations – should be initiated by the Federal Government as soon as possible.

These essential changes will not solve all the issues of the family law system. But they will ensure an improved court experience for a great many family violence survivors all across Australia.

What is more, implementing these reforms now will lay the foundation for further improvements at the completion of the Australian Law Reform Commission family law system review.

safe steps is committed to representing the needs of women and children impacted by family violence. Many of the women and children we assist share stories of how damaging they found their interactions with the family law system to be. They tell of feeling let down, attacked and alienated. They tell of being made to face devastating emotional and psychological abuse, great financial hardship and, in some cases, of being repeatedly placed at risk of physical harm by court mandated procedures and orders.

Women and children, who have already survived experiences of abuse in their homes, are being retraumatised by a court system that is failing them.

We at safe steps are committed to achieving better court experiences for family violence survivors, which is why we call on the Federal Government to begin implementing the Parliamentary Inquiry’s recommendations now. The time to start addressing the issues of the family law system is not in a year or two’s time, or after the completion of yet another review. That is too long for too many women and children. The time to start fixing the Family Court is right now.

We will continue advocating, through all avenues available to us, for the implementation of these critical reforms, and further system improvements, until we have a family law system that properly supports and protects all family violence survivors. That is our pledge.

Annette Gillespie
safe steps CEO

 

To read the full Parliamentary Inquiry into a Better Family Law System to Support and Protect Those Affected by Family Violence, go to https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House/Social_Policy_and_Legal_Affairs/FVlawreform/Report

To share your Family Court experience with the Australian Law Reform Commission Review of the Family Law System, go to https://www.alrc.gov.au/content/tell-us-your-story