Private Members' Business - Domestic and Family Violence

Mr PERRETT (MoretonOpposition Whip) (13:16): I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that Women's Legal Services Australia and 90 other organisations concerned with family violence wrote to all political leaders in May 2016 calling on them to put safety first in family law;


(2) recognises that:

(a) unrepresented litigants have been an increasing feature of the Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court of Australia for many years;

(b) due to the cuts made to Legal Aid funding by the Government, the number of unrepresented litigants continues to increase;

(c) unrepresented litigants are entitled to cross-examine the other party to test their evidence in a trial; and

(d) where a victim of family violence is subjected to direct cross-examination by their abuser, the:

   (i) victim can be severely traumatised;

   (ii) quality of the evidence given to the court can be compromised;

   (iii) perpetrator can use the court process to further abuse the victim; and

   (iv) victim may discontinue the proceedings because they are unable to endure the cross-examination;

(3) further notes that the Opposition took to the election a commitment to protect victims and survivors from being personally cross-examined by alleged perpetrators; and

(4) calls on the Government to immediately act to protect victims of family violence by introducing amendments to the Family Law Act 1975 to ensure that victims of family violence are not directly cross-examined by their abusers during court proceedings.

I am pleased to move the motion circulated in my name calling on the Turnbull-Joyce government to act to protect victims of family violence from being directly cross-examined by their abusers during court proceedings. Imagine for a moment, Deputy Speaker, that you are the victim of an assault. Imagine that your fear of the person who assaulted you is so powerful that you feel physically ill when you are in their presence. Now imagine that, in order to protect your children, you will have to face direct questioning from the person you are most terrified of, sometimes about the most intimate aspects of your life. This is the situation for hundreds of parents every year going through our already-stressed family courts. Who could blame these parents if the prospect of facing their abuser is so terrifying that they walk away from getting the justice that they and their children deserve?

Women's Legal Services Australia is the peak body of a network of community legal centres specialising in women's legal issues. There are 15 members, stretching the length and breadth of Australia. Women's Legal Service Queensland is located in Moreton, and I know the great work they do every day for women all over Queensland, and I acknowledge Angela Lynch and her colleagues from this service. Women's Legal Services Australia are champions for many women's legal issues. For some time they have been calling for changes to the Family Law Act to protect women from being directly cross-examined by their abuser.

During the election campaign Women's Legal Services Australia, along with more than 90 other organisations working with victims of family violence, sent an open letter to all political leaders calling on them to put safety first in family law. One of the five steps in the Safety First in Family Law plan is to:

Reduce trauma and support those who are most at risk of future violence and death.

I am proud that Labor took to the election a commitment to amend the Family Law Act to protect victims of family violence from being directly cross-examined by their abuser.

The work of family violence organisations like Women's Legal Services tells us that victims of family violence often feel that their former partners use the court system to continue the abuse. Victims can be retraumatised from the experience of direct cross-examination by their abuser. The evidence given to the court through direct cross-examination can be compromised, affecting the ability of the court to make safe and effective orders. Some victims feel pressured into agreements that may be unsafe or unworkable in order to avoid being directly cross-examined. This is a very serious issue.

In a submission to the Law Council of Australia in October 2015, Women's Legal Services Australia detailed feedback from a survey they had conducted. The survey asked women what their experience was of being personally cross-examined by their abusers in the family law courts. Three women were so traumatised they were suicidal. Three women were physically ill before their court appearance and during the process of cross-examination. One woman was violently ill on the side of the road on the way to court, causing her to be late and the court date vacated. One woman had to be medicated just to physically make it into the courtroom and was later admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The words used by the respondents to the survey to describe their experience included 'fear', 'anxiety', 'debilitating', 'worst nightmare', 'humiliating', 'degrading', 'horrific', 'horrendous', 'intimidating', 'belittled' and 'unjust'.

Unlike the many problems the Turnbull-Joyce government face, this is a problem with a solution. Labor took to the election a policy to amend the Family Law Act to provide protection for victims of family violence facing direct cross-examination by their abuser, including providing legal representation for both unrepresented parties where that is necessary. This election commitment was costed at $43.2 million over four years. That is just over one-quarter of the cost of the $160 million needed for the government's divisive marriage equality plebiscite. The Turnbull-Joyce government should act immediately. Victims of family violence and their children are suffering every single day that this government does not act, unfortunately.

I do not pretend for a second that implementing this policy would solve all of the complicated problems around family violence. There is still much more to do. It is always messy when love turns to hate—or even worse. Family violence is a difficult policy area, not only because it is emotive but also because it crosses over jurisdictions. The resultant disjointed system sometimes leaves victims fallen between the cracks. Under the guidance of Mark Dreyfus, the shadow Attorney-General, Labor took to the election a range of policies that would assist in addressing this scourge of family violence. I would welcome the Turnbull-Joyce government implementing these Labor policies. I am sure that victims of family violence do not care who fixes the system; they just want to make sure that it is fixed. I commend again the great work of Women's Legal Service Queensland in my electorate and of others throughout Australia for the great work they do in saving people's lives.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Hastie ): Is there a seconder?

Ms Butler: I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.