Australia's Family Law System Joint Select Committee - Report

March 15, 2021

I speak today on the tabling of the second interim report of the Joint Select Committee on Australia's Family Law System. Before I do so, I'd like to particularly commend the chair of the committee, the member for Menzies. I don't think there is a more disparate group of cats in this parliament than was on that committee, but he managed to herd us together. I say, with all respect to some of my fellow committee members, that he managed to herd us together very well and did an exceptional job. I again commend the member for Menzies for his great work.

This report details the committee's views on the family law system and makes 29 important recommendations. We do so after receiving over 1,700 submissions from organisations and individuals with direct or indirect experience of the family law system. We conducted 12 public hearings and 13 in camera hearings. More than 40 hours of evidence from 85 witnesses was heard during the in camera sessions. I thank each of the submitters and witnesses, who provided the committee with very valuable evidence to consider when compiling this report. Thank you to the secretariat for undertaking that compilation because much of the evidence, I know, was distressing and many of the witnesses were presenting information in a highly charged state. For many witnesses, the process of giving evidence before the committee was very daunting, particularly because of comments made by the deputy chair prior to the inquiry commencing. The deputy chair publicly declared that women lie about domestic and family violence in Family Court disputes. I am pleased that the committee unanimously concluded that false allegations are actually not prevalent. I don't think an inquiry was needed to come to that conclusion; nonetheless, I welcome the committee's finding.

The report makes a total of 29 recommendations to improve the family law system, and I particularly welcome more funding for legal aid commissions and community legal centres; funding for an additional 25 to 30 registrars in the family courts to address backlogs and delays; a mandatory accreditation scheme for family report writers; the urgent release of an exposure draft of legislation to address the current misunderstanding of equal shared parental responsibility; amending the Family Law Act to reflect the impact of family violence on property settlements; expanding legally assisted family dispute resolution; the recommendation that the Family Law Council be reconstituted; and continued funding for non-legal support services for all victims of family violence.

These are all sensible recommendations that will improve the family law system. Each recommendation I listed had already been made in previous inquiries and reports. Those recommendations are collecting dust on the shelves in the Attorney-General's office right now. We didn't need this inquiry to know that these are all measures that will improve the family law system; we already knew what to do. This parliament knew what to do. There has not been the will from this coalition government to do it. There have been 67 previous reports and inquiries into family law. I think the member for Menzies was on one of those back in the early 1990s. Just the two most recent reports collectively made 93 recommendations to improve the family law system. The 2019 Australian Law Reform Commission report into family law has still not been responded to by the Morrison government. We were told in Senate estimates that the Attorney-General had the government response to this report on his desk 17 months ago. What happened to it? Obviously responding to the most comprehensive review into family law commissioned by his own government isn't a priority for the Attorney-General, despite him implementing the biggest structural reform on the family law system since the Family Court was established way back in 1976.

I'd like to just touch on that. The Attorney-General rammed through his bill to merge the Family Court of Australia with the Federal Circuit Court last month. He didn't listen to the overwhelming calls from experts, academics and advocates that it was a really bad idea. He didn't wait for this committee to table its final report. He pushed through a bill that was designed to abolish the only standalone specialist family law court. Had the Attorney-General waited for this committee to report, he would have received further evidence given to the committee of the harm the merger will bring to families navigating the family law system.

I'm greatly saddened by the abolition of the Family Court of Australia, but now more than ever the family law system needs to be well resourced and strengthened. I urge the Attorney-General and the Prime Minister to actually read the committee report, to read the 29 recommendations and to read the additional comments by Labor members of the committee. Don't just receive it; actually read it. Many of the 29 recommendations in this report are not new. They have been recommended by previous inquiries and previous reports. There is no reason to delay implementing these recommendations. In fact, the work should have been started years ago. The family law system has been neglected for far too long. I urge the government to urgently implement these recommendations. There should be no more inquiries and no more reports into the family law system until the current government addresses and implements the recommendations already made.