Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall speaks on the final report of the Family Law Inquiry

23 November 2021


I commend to the House the third interim report and the final report tabled by the Joint Select Committee on Australia's Family Law System, of which I am a member. In doing so, it is important that I call on the government to actually act on these reports and the two previous reports from the committee. Don't let these reports sit on the shelf like so many similar reports from previous inquiries.

It should be noted that there have been 67 different inquiries on the Family Law Act since it came into effect in January 1976. Unfortunately, there is a history of successive inquiries identifying similar systemic problems in our family law system and of successive governments being unwilling or unable to make the necessary changes. When this inquiry was first announced at the end of 2019, I was sceptical that this was to implement real change and not just a political stunt. My concerns about how this committee might be used and about the process were real, because these are real people's lives. People are incredibly impacted by the breakdown of family relationships, and they are turning to this inquiry for change and they are turning to the government for implementation of the recommendations so they feel that there can be progress in such a distressing area.

Having been a family law barrister before coming to this place, I have experience of how distressing this area of law can be. It goes to the absolute core of people's lives. Having acted for both sides—for both men and women, for both parties—in property and parenting proceedings, I know it can be so distressing. This needs to become a bipartisan issue, and there needs to be a political will to implement these changes.

The reality is that in modern society, sadly, 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 or separation and resolve disputes over property and over the custody of children. Most of us know someone who has gone through either separation or the family law court. To varying degrees, this process can be adversarial, confrontational, emotionally unsettling, financially crippling and life-changing. If there's one thing we can never get back, it's time. It is one of the major problems with the system. For that reason, it's imperative that our family law system not only be functional; it needs to be fair and well funded. It all goes to that question of time—the time it takes for disputes to be resolved or determined.

It is so important that the government take note of these recommendations. Over the course of the inquiry, we received more than 1,700 submissions, the majority from individuals detailing their incredibly personal cases and experience. I thank all those who provided evidence and submissions to the inquiry. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the committee held 13 public hearings and 13 in camera hearings. I'd like to thank all the people on the committee and also, importantly, the secretariat for their tireless efforts in providing logistical and administrative support of the committee.

The terms of reference for this inquiry were far-reaching. On the whole, I feel they have been addressed by this inquiry. The key issues identified were the costs associated with the family law system; the adversarial nature of the family law courts and whether we should move towards a more inquisitorial model; the issue of distressing delays in the current court system; the role of family consultants, expert witnesses and independent children's lawyers; enforcement and contravention of family law orders; and family violence, because in family law proceedings how the family law system and family violence jurisdictions interact is considered.

The first interim report canvassed the various themes and issues raised in evidence received throughout the first 12 months of the inquiry. It was tabled in October 2020. The second interim report detailed the committee's conclusions and recommendations in relation to the family law system. It was tabled in March 2021. The third interim report dealt specifically with the issue of Australia's child support scheme, which emerged as a dominant issue during the inquiry. We expanded the inquiry with the aim of focusing specifically on the child support scheme and its interaction with the family law system. The committee's goals were twofold: first, to allow for a better analysis of the existing evidence; second, to provide an opportunity to gather additional evidence through a further inquiry and better question key government agencies and stakeholders.

The child support scheme is vital to society. It is a social policy, and I note that it supports over one million children and involves approximately 1.25 million parents. There was a broad range of participants, who were generous enough to provide the committee with their personal experiences with the child support scheme. It's important to remember that the overriding objective of this scheme is to ensure that children—the innocent parties in all family breakdowns—receive a proper level of financial support from their parents. The overriding duty of parents is that they are financially responsible for children, and that can never be forgotten.

The committee's recommendations also aim to improve the general operation of the scheme and the experience for both the payer and the payee parent. Less than 40 per cent of cases involved payments of $5,000 or more per annum. Approximately 30 per cent of cases actually had amounts payable of $500 per annum or less, which does make me question how those children are actually managing on such small supports. Importantly, the committee was also advised that the median child support payable under the formula was only $3,354 per annum, or $65 per week, which really raises some questions of how well the formula is actually working. One of the key themes identified by the committee was the general accessibility of the scheme, and that's why one of the recommendations is for the government to provide adequate resources to Services Australia to allow it to enhance child support scheme services. Also, it should work better with the courts. In particular, there was a recommendation for more consultation and more transparency.

The Australian government needs to reconvene regular meetings of the Child Support National Stakeholder Engagement Group. In particular, it was recommended that there should be a meeting before the end of 2021 and that the group should meet at least twice per year and should publish minutes to promote accountability and transparency. Participants in the scheme want to know the scheme is being looked at, reviewed and assessed. There was also a recommendation about the location of child support officers in the family law courts. There needs to be a better conjunction of the scheme and the courts to ensure that there is proper reference and that they are working together.

One of the more shocking aspects raised was the child support payment debt and government guarantee. Australia currently has $1.6 billion of child support debt. The report powerfully states that this is 'equivalent to stealing from children'. Urgent action needs to be taken to reduce the existing child support debt levels and to promote the ongoing prompt payment of assessed child support, because those children need that financial support while they are children.

Recognising this increasing level of debt and the negative impact it will have on children, the committee notes that a number of submitters proposed a guarantee mechanism to ensure payments are made to the payee parent irrespective of the other parent's compliance—essentially, a framework that would provide that outstanding debt would become a debt to government, which could be pursued accordingly through government services. The committee felt that this suggestion had merit because the government is better placed to recover outstanding debts, compared to individual parents. Of course, the question of financial abuse and family violence featured prominently. We must never underestimate financial abuse. The withholding of child support payment needs to be recognised as financial abuse.

There were, in all, many, many recommendations. I urge all those who participated to read the report in detail to better understand where these recommendations came from. It really is important that the government engage with these issues. Ultimately, there were many questions of mental health that were raised, because of the pressures of this system, so I would encourage anyone to seek help with Lifeline or Beyond Blue. The breakdown of a family relationship should not be exacerbated by the system.

Debate adjourned.