Australia's Family Law System

November 22, 2021


I rise to make some comments, as one of the three Labor members of the Joint Select Committee on Australia's Family Law System, on the tabling of the committee's third interim report and the committee's final report. This committee was appointed by the parliament in September 2019, and thus this inquiry has been running for over two years.

I had concerns about this family law committee before it was commenced. I was concerned about the number of recommendations from other reports and inquiries already sitting and collecting dust in Attorney-General Porter's office. This Liberal majority government appointed a One Nation senator as deputy chair of the committee. I was concerned about comments by the deputy chair, made prior to the committee even hearing any evidence, that many women were lying to the Family Court, an assertion that was dispelled unanimously by this committee in our second interim report, a report that the deputy chair signed off on. I was concerned that the only motivation for the Morrison government commencing this inquiry was to kick this can of worms down the road; to do nothing but to pretend otherwise.

Despite all of these concerns, I've taken my role on this committee seriously, as have my Labor colleagues and others. The committee had the privilege of hearing the very personal stories of many people who have experienced the Family Court system firsthand. The committee received valuable evidence, and I would like to thank every submitter and every person and organisation that gave evidence to this committee. It took courage for so many to revisit trauma, heartache, disappointment and worse.

The role of parliamentary committees is very important in our Westminster style democracy. It is how parliament obtains evidence about specific issues. It is how parliament informs itself. Parliamentary committees do much of the unglamorous grunt work of the executive government. It was important to hear evidence from people who are using the Family Court system. If the system is not working for them, it's not working. It was important to hear from experts in family law and family violence for their analysis of what needs to change. But the work of committees is all for naught if recommendations to parliament are ignored by the executive. This committee has made a total of 52 recommendations to improve the family law system, including the Child Support Scheme. There are some particularly good recommendations, but sadly many of these recommendations have been made in previous reports and inquiries.

The chair of the committee, the member for Menzies, told us he commenced such an inquiry when he first came into parliament, more than 30 years ago, and he's now the Father of the House. I wish to place on the record my thanks to the member for Menzies for his sterling work running this large committee. He should take up herding cats when he retires, as he definitely has honed that skill since being appointed the chair of the family law committee! I thank him for his service to the parliament on this committee and those before.

For the two years it took the committee to come up with another 52 recommendations to fix the family law system, what did the coalition government do? They didn't implement any of the multitude of recommendations they already had to improve the family law system; instead, unbelievably, they abolished the Family Court of Australia. They abolished the internationally renowned Family Court without any recommendation to do so—none at all. Prime Minister Morrison chose to do this without any support from family law experts or those who actually work in the family law system. He didn't even wait for this inquiry, the one the coalition called for to help improve the family law system, to be completed and to hand down its final report. This will be the most shameful legacy of the Morrison government, abolishing the Family Court of Australia. Abolishing things is the coalition's only legacy; they build nothing. It turns out the 'I don't hold a hose, mate' Prime Minister didn't mind picking up a sledgehammer and swinging it when it came to a family court that was the envy of the world. It's a pity the Prime Minister wasn't as eager to make changes that would have actually made the legal system safer for families. There were plenty of sensible recommendations to choose from, many of which have been repeatedly recommended in report after report and have been recommended again by this committee.

My private member's bill is one example. It removes a dangerous presumption in the Family Law Act that has been recommended by many reports. The Women's Legal Services Australia has been calling for this change as part of their Safety First in Family Law campaign—endorsed by more than 90 organisations. I introduced this private member's bill last year. It is still before this chamber, and all the Prime Minister needs to do is to bring it on, but I would put money on him doing nothing.

I first raised removing this presumption on 24 February 2020 in the parliament in response to the murder of Hannah Clarke and her young children, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey. At this dispatch box, I called on the Morrison government to immediately act. After I spoke, the member for Petrie crossed over the floor of the parliament to tell me that my comments were unfair because the coalition government was doing something. The member for Petrie was personally insulted. So, what was the government doing? A year-and-a-half on, what have they done? They've abolished the specialist Family Court. I didn't realise that that's what the member for Petrie intended to do, otherwise I would have actually been a lot less polite than I was.

For eight years the coalition government starved the family law system of resources. They failed to replace judges as they retired, with some judges not being replaced for more than a year. Attorney-General Porter was almost holding the family law system to ransom so he could fulfil his ideological dream of abolishing the Family Court of Australia. There is simply no other explanation. And, now that the Family Court of Australia has been abolished, the Morrison government is finally giving the family law system some much needed resources such as funding for 42 new registrars to assist the judicial process and avoid delays. Imagine what a difference 42 more bodies who can hear simple matters and assist with case management will make. If only those 42 registrars had been funded eight years ago; how many more families would have avoided harm, heartache or worse? How much misery visited on children might have been avoided? How much anger and heartache could have been prevented?

As I said, there are some great recommendations to come out of this committee's report, even if many of them are not new. There is one recommendation I'd like to quickly mention. The final report contains a recommendation to expand the Lighthouse Project to all registries and all parenting, and then parenting and property, matters. Labor members strongly support this recommendation.

The Lighthouse Project is a screening program for family violence. Data from the court reported on just this weekend confirms that family violence is seriously underreported. Eighty per cent of cases involve at least one risk factor of either child abuse, family violence, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness or threats of harm or abduction. The Lighthouse Project is an innovation of the Family Court of Australia. Development of the project was commenced by Senior Register Lisa O'Neill in 2018, and the first business case was completed in the second half of 2019. To be clear, the Lighthouse Project was not a proposal put forward by the coalition government, the One Nation political party or any other political party. Instead, it was the result of hardworking professional court staff responding to the complex needs of families coming before the courts. Labor members congratulate the court for this innovative project and thank the professional staff for their expertise in designing this important screening tool.

This inquiry was an excuse for the Morrison government to kick the can down the road, to avoid doing anything other than erode the specialisation in the family law system by abolishing the Family Court of Australia. Not to take anything from the great work of this committee and the wonderful secretariat who had to cope with difficult stories and some damaged people, instituting inquiries is not governing. It is a hallmark of the do-nothing Morrison government. Making real change to a system that is putting women and children at some risk, properly resourcing the family law system to keep families safe and making sure the people tasked with making crucial decisions about families have the skills and temperament and knowledge they need—that's what a real leader would do. That is governing. I commend these reports to the House.