Family law system urged to maintain vigilance against family violence
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The Institute’s Director, Anne Hollonds said while Australia’s family law system had been under significant scrutiny for more than a decade, concerns remain about the extent of family violence screening and the treatment of children’s interests in the system.
“In 2006, legislative amendments were introduced to support parents to resolve parenting arrangements without going to court,” she said.
“Then, in 2012 a narrower set of amendments came in to strengthen the emphasis on protecting children from harm when making those arrangements.
“Now, only a troubled minority of parents call on the system for substantial help, especially in the case of those that end up using lawyers and courts to sort out their issues.
“These families are often affected by complex issues, such as family violence, substance abuse and mental health concerns.
“That’s why there is an increasing need to screen and assess cases for family violence and safety concerns when making parenting arrangements to meet the needs of these often troubled families.”
Research Fellow, Dr Rachel Carson said the Institute’s evaluation of the 2012 family violence amendments found that while there was an increased emphasis on identifying family violence and safety concerns across the family law system, there was some way to go in the development and implementation of consistent and effective screening approaches.
“A substantial minority of separated parents in our survey who reported seeking advice from family law professionals to resolve their issues were not asked about whether they had experienced family violence,” she said.
“Parents who reported family violence or had safety concerns for themselves or their children had a very mixed set of views and experiences in terms of how their issues were dealt with, suggesting an uneven effect of the reforms.
“There was also concern among family law professionals about the system’s general capacity to screen for family violence and safety concerns among these families with complex issues.
“Family law system professionals participating in our study raised concerns about the level of resources required to assess family violence, child abuse and child safety concerns and the need for improvements in education and training for family law professionals.
“The research also identified concerns about overlaps and inconsistencies between the family law system and state and territory child protection systems, family violence responses and the complexity of the system as a whole.”
Dr Carson said despite those on-going issues, subtle changes in the pattern of parenting arrangements had begun to emerge.
“The findings suggest that a greater emphasis on identifying family violence and child safety concerns has supported modest, positive shifts in the making of parenting arrangements,” she said.
“Judicially determined orders for shared parental responsibility decreased after the reforms from 51 per cent to 40 per cent.
“In cases characterised by family violence, parenting resolutions by judicial determination or consent prior to or during trial took longer at least in part due to the need for a greater level of scrutiny of these concerns.
“However the evaluation found no indication that children’s’ views were receiving any greater emphasis in litigated court matters after the amendments.
“Overall, parents’ views on whether the family law system meets the needs of children changed only marginally post the reforms.
“Just under half of the parents who separated after the 2012 reforms said the system met the needs of children.”
Dr Carson said an earlier study by the Institute found that children and young people wanted a greater say in proceedings.
“The children and young people who participated in our study expected to meet with an independent children’s lawyer more than once and to be supported to understand what was going on in the proceedings,” she said.
“A lack of meaningful contact between children and the lawyers appointed to represent their best interests caused significant disappointment among the children and young people interviewed for the study.
“It is clear that screening and assessment for—and responses to—family violence, child abuse and other safety concerns and the treatment of children’s interests are issues of central concern for the continued development of a system that meets the needs of families and children.