Family Matters No. 95 - December 2014

Institute seminars

Independent Children's Lawyers: Multiple perspectives on expectations and experience of practice

Dr Rae Kaspiew

Seminar held at the Institute on 18 February 2014

Report by Melissa Coulson

In this seminar, Dr Rae Kaspiew, lead researcher of the Independent Children's Lawyers (ICLs) Study and manager of the family law research program at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, gave an overview of the study's key findings.

Dr Kaspiew explained that ICLs act as "best interests" advocates for children and young people. An ICL is not the child's/young person's legal representative and is not obliged to act on their instructions. ICL appointments are guided by non-exhaustive criteria, which include matters involving allegations of family violence and/or child abuse and neglect. She noted that ICLs are appointed in approximately one-third of litigated family law matters.

The aim of the ICL study was to examine to what extent having ICLs involved in family law proceedings improves the outcomes for children and young people. Dr Kaspiew described the research methodology, which involved surveys with ICLs, non-ICL lawyers, judicial officers and registrars, and non-legal family law professionals as well as interviews with ICLs and parents, children and young people who had been involved in a family law case where an ICL had been appointed. The study also included a review of legal aid commission policies, and interviews with child protection representatives and legal aid commissions in each state and territory.

Dr Kaspiew reported that the ICL's role was valuable, particularly to judicial officers and registrars. Dr Kaspiew's analysis suggested three key functions of the ICL role:

  • facilitating the participation of the children and young people in the proceedings;
  • gathering evidence to give the court a full picture of the child or young person's life; and
  • as an "honest broker" in managing the case and negotiations.

The facilitating participation function was the least emphasised by professionals in the ICL study; however, participating parents, children and young people were most disappointed in how this function was discharged by ICLs. Dr Kaspiew stated that a pattern was evident in the data regarding issues such as whether the needs of children and young people are adequately considered in family law proceedings, and whether the current model for ICLs allows adequate opportunities for the views of children and young people to be heard. Judicial officers and registrars were the most positive in their views, followed by ICLs. Conversely, non-legal professionals and non-ICL lawyers had the least positive views.

Dr Kaspiew noted that most ICLs reported having direct contact with children and young people "rarely" or "sometimes". However, two-thirds of judicial officers and registrars, non-ICL lawyers, and non-legal family law professionals believed that ICLs should always contact children and young people of sufficient maturity by phone or in person.

Despite having concerns about competence, lack of communication, and lack of impartiality, Dr. Kaspiew reported that some parents noted positive aspects of having an ICL involved in their case, including having someone who listened to the children and young people, facilitating the child or young person's understanding of the proceedings, and ameliorating the adversarial nature of proceedings. Dr Kaspiew noted that most participating children and young people reported having little or no contact with the ICL. Their expectation was that the ICL would listen to their needs and stick up for them; most reported that this did not occur. An interview with a young person who had a positive ICL experience revealed that the ICL made them feel listened to, respected and comfortable.

Dr Kaspiew reported there were concerns expressed about the competence of some ICLs. Dr Kaspiew considered several underlying issues that may contribute to the concerns regarding the competence of ICLs. Funding was described as a major issue, as grants of assistance were identified as not meeting the costs of running a case. Dr Kaspiew also suggested that training and professional development for ICLs could be improved. Additionally, non-ICL lawyers and non-legal professionals may have differing opinions of the expectations of their own role and the role of an ICL.

Dr Kaspiew concluded that the ICL study indicated that competent ICLs do improve outcomes for children and young people, as they ensure that more comprehensive information is before the court, but that improvements to training and increased funding may help to ensure more ICLs function competently.

Recent and impending demographic change in Australia: Some implications for Australian households, families and housing

Professor Graeme Hugo

Seminar held at the Institute on 15 May 2014

Report by Maggie Yu

Graeme Hugo is an ARC Australian Professorial Fellow, Professor of Geography and Director of the Australian Population and Migration Research Centre at the University of Adelaide. In the seminar, Professor Hugo discussed the major changes that have occurred in the Australian population over the last 30 years and highlighted some implications for Australian families. The presentation focused on population growth trends and the changing patterns of mortality, fertility, international migration and population distribution. Changes in the composition of the population were considered with respect to aging, ethnicity and households.

Professor Hugo pointed out that, unlike many economic and social changes that can be sudden, demographic change is usually gradual and cumulative. Yet demographic changes are often overlooked by commentators and policy-makers. The Australian population has undergone significant change over the last couple of decades.

There has been a steep increase in the life expectancy of Australians over the last century, due to major improvements in medical treatment and lifestyle. More Australians are surviving to retirement age and enjoying an extended period of retirement. At present, life expectancy is around 79 years for men and 85 years for women. This change has contributed significantly to the growth of the older population.

One of demographic phenomena over the last century was the rapid increase in fertility after World War II. The increase was particularly significant in Australia, associated with high levels of employment and economic growth, and good access to housing. Additionally, the high fertility within the two decades following World War II had a huge impact on the growth and ageing rate of Australia's population. The baby boomers (those who were born during the two decades after the World War II) are now poised to enter retirement. The presentation involved interesting discussions regarding what the baby boomers plan to do during retirement in terms of their living arrangements, housing, and mobility.

Increases in net migration have also had a significant impact on demographic change. In 2011, half of the people living in Australia were either migrants or Australian-born children of migrants. Australian's population has been strongly affected by international migration. Currently, two-thirds of all growth of the population in Australia is attributed to net migration. This makes Australia the most multicultural country in the world, with a diverse type of multiculturalism where no single group dominates. One important change in Australian immigration recently has been the increase in temporary migrants - workers and students. However, immigration data collection practices haven't adjusted to focus on temporary migration and the way in which skilled migration has become more dominant within both the temporary and permanent migration programs.

An interesting demographic pattern since World War II is that the growth of households has been faster than the growth in population. This is related to the changes in the way that Australians form their household, which has significant implications for housing and services.

Professor Hugo also discussed changes to the geographic distribution of the Australian population including the shift of the population from non-metropolitan to metropolitan areas, the rapid population growth in some areas, high levels of immigration in capital cities, and some interesting changes in population distribution within capital cities.

To finish, Professor Hugo alluded to future work that will undertake a significant review of the data collection from the Australian Bureau of Statistics on households and families, in order to measure and quantify these processes and trends in the Australian population.

Building safe and sustainable communities: Families are central

Warren Mundine

Seminar held at the Institute on 19 August 2014

Report by Stewart Muir

In a seminar delivered at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Warren Mundine, Managing Director of NyunggaBlack and Chairman of the Australian Government's Indigenous Advisory Council, the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation and the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce, delivered his vision of parental responsibility as the key to building strong, functioning families and, ultimately, safe and sustainable communities.

Illustrating his presentation with vignettes of families with harrowing histories of child neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and drug and alcohol dependency, Mr Mundine argued that such cases of intergenerational dysfunction were enabled and exacerbated by welfare dependency and by the failure of governments to hold parents accountable. Revealing that several of his case studies came from the UK government's "Troubled Families Programme", an initiative focusing on families with multiple and complex needs, he stressed that chronic intergenerational breakdown is not solely a problem for Indigenous families but instead can arise anywhere that parents do not understand or accept their responsibilities.

As such, he argued that poverty, in itself, is not the issue nor are dysfunctional families entirely "society's" responsibility. Rather, parents have to accept personal responsibility for providing a safe and secure environment for their children, regardless of their economic circumstances, and for inculcating the value of education and employment. In this he contrasted his approach with what he characterised as the "progressive" discomfort with talk about families and values and the equally unhelpful "conservative" focus on moral concerns about family form (such as same-sex or single-parent families).

Reiterated throughout the presentation was an emphasis on employment as a means of escaping poverty and as a moral value to be passed on to children. Further arguing that welfare dependency perpetuates intergenerational poverty, Mr Mundine suggested that government assistance should move away from state-provided financial support, except as a last resort, and refocus on getting unemployed family members into work and, where necessary, compelling parents to meet their familial obligations. Again suggesting that we could learn from the UK "Troubled Families Programme", and, in particular, its emphasis on shifting state support towards interventions designed to help families help themselves, Mr Mundine proposed adopting a model of intensive family case-management. Such an approach could, he suggested, assist families who are struggling with their responsibilities by identifying their specific issues and providing flexible and tailored support.