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Zali Steggall MP calls for the Family Law System to be better funded

8 October, 2020


I rise today to speak with regard to the interim report tabled on behalf of the Joint Select Committee on Australia's Family Law System, of which I am a member. The reality of modern society, sadly, is that 40 per cent of marriages end in divorce. While many of those separations are conducted fairly and amicably, there are still many Australians who rely on the family law system to settle their divorce and resolve disputes over property and custody of children. Most of us know someone who has gone through the family law courts or have experienced it first hand ourselves. To various degrees, this process can be adversarial, confrontational, emotionally unsettling, financially crippling and life changing. It's for that reason that it's imperative that our family law system is not only functional but is fair and well funded. It's for that reason that this report of this inquiry is important.

At this stage, I want to commend the government for its budget announcement that it will inject $35.7 million over four years for resourcing and judicial numbers in the Federal Circuit Court. This is important, and I acknowledge the overall investment of a projected $132.1 million, aimed at expediting the handling of family law and other matters over the same period. This is an important first step, and I thank the government for addressing this urgent need for resourcing.

When this inquiry was first announced I, like many others, was sceptical. It should be noted there have been 67 different inquiries into the Family Law Act since it came into effect in January 1976—that should be nearly a record. The most recent of these was the Australian Law Reform Commission report, handed down in March 2019, entitled Family law for the future—An inquiry into the family law system. The report contains 60 different recommendations on how to improve the system. Sadly, some 18 months on, the government is yet to release its response to that report, and I, of course, use this opportunity to call on the government to do so and urgently implement the full list of recommendations.

Unfortunately, there is a history of successive inquiries identifying similar systemic problems with our family law system and successive governments being unwilling or unable to make the necessary changes. So, when this joint select inquiry was announced, I hoped that maybe this time it would be different. I hoped that this inquiry would lead to that fair and fully funded system we so desperately need. I nominated as a member not just to represent the interests of my constituents in Warringah, many of whom have gone through the family law system, but also to bring to the process my experience and knowledge as a family law barrister prior to entering this parliament. That was over a year ago.

The 24th of this month will, in fact, mark exactly 12 months since we first met as a committee charged with the responsibility of improving the family law system. In those 12 months, we've received more than 1,600 submissions, the majority from individuals detailing their personal cases and experiences and another 169 submissions from organisations, academics and other professionals. Despite the various challenges, of course, of COVID-19, we've held 11 public hearings and 13 in camera hearings. So it's important at this stage that I thank all the people who took time to provide to the committee a submission or to appear at one of our hearings. It's vitally important that we hear from those who have had firsthand experience with the system, those who are seeking to improve it and from those who have the skills and expertise in the law, in child protection and in community services. I really thank everyone for their contribution.

The terms of reference for this inquiry were very broad and far-reaching. They covered interaction of the family law system, state and territory jurisdictions, the appropriateness of the Family Court powers and enforcement, the proposed merger of the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court, the financial costs and impacts to families in the process, the effectiveness and enforcement of the family law outcomes, the support available throughout that process and services to families, the family dispute resolution processes and then, ultimately, the impacts of family law proceedings on the health, safety and wellbeing of children and families involved in those proceedings. Of course, it also dealt with issues arising for grandparents and carers in the family law system and in relation to the monitoring of professionals involved in family law proceedings. There were, of course, very far-ranging areas and scope for this inquiry, and, on the whole, I feel that the issues covered in this interim report before the House are consistent with those terms of reference but also my own experience as a family law barrister.

The interim report has not made recommendations, but it has set out the breadth of the evidence that's been received and the areas covered, and these have been very broad. But I should say first off that the committee is not in a position to determine the truth of the facts alleged and set out before it during hearings or in submissions. We are simply and very frequently only hearing from one side of a story. So, while some may feel that it's a question of forming a judgement, that is not the role of the committee. It was simply to gather the experiences, identify some of the problems and take on board the submissions from some of the professional organisations that work in the space.

It's clear the family law system has a huge impact on people's lives. Some of the areas that were brought to our attention included very much the challenges in engaging with the legal system. The family law system is often the very first time a person is having to engage with the court process. So it can be incredibly confronting and debilitating as your most personal situation is laid bare before a court and often put in the hands of somebody else to determine. This can be incredibly confronting and challenging. Parenting arrangements, enforcements, allegations of alienation of parents, legal costs, mediation, dispute resolution—these are all major issues covered.

We can't talk about breakdown of families without talking about domestic violence. It is a scourge in our society and must be addressed. We heard a lot of evidence in relation to domestic violence and how it interacts with the family law system and engages at all levels. There were points raised around systemic issues when it comes to costs, qualifications, consultants and expert witnesses. Of course, the adversarial nature of the system was also brought up. The question of, 'Should we move to a more inquisitorial system?' is something that has been explored. Legal fees and costs are also often tied to the length of time that it takes for proceedings to be dealt with. This, of course, all comes back to fully funding the courts to be able to deal in a timely manner with disputes in a fair and balanced way.

I look forward to working with the committee to continue the inquiry and work at developing, I would hope, some recommendations that will, in fact, deal with a lot of the issues that were raised before the committee. As I said, I think this interim report is promising and that the inquiry's on the right track to formulating some clear recommendations for how the family law system in Australia can be improved. But those recommendations will be useless unless the government commit to implementing them. So I do look for that assurance from the government—that they will fully implement the recommendations of last year's report from the Australian Law Reform Commission and will fully implement the recommendations of this report. Australian families deserve a legal system that is fair and fully funded. I look forward to working with my fellow committee members from both sides of the aisle and with the government to achieve that outcome.

In conclusion, we're all aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has created added pressure for relationships that were possibly already under stress. This is really important for everyone. Support services and welfare agencies all report an increase in people seeking help either for mental health issues or on family violence. So anyone in a situation where they feel their relationship is causing mental distress please reach out. Lifeline is at 131114. Beyondblue is at 1800512348. If you are in a situation of family violence or if you are worried about someone who is in a situation where there might be intimidation, controlling behaviour, harassment or physical violence, whether they be male or female, please call 1800RESPECT—that's 1800737732—or MensLine Australia at 1300789878.