Family Matters No. 98, 2016

Future directions for the family law system

Content type
Family Matters issue

November 2016

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This edition of Family Matters focuses on family law, donor conception and elder abuse.

Director's report

Anne Hollonds

Edited extract of the Director’s Welcome Address at the 2016 AIFS Conference

In the research, policy and practice communities, we often hear frustration about the role of evidence in making decisions.

Gaps between research evidence and policy and practice have existed for a long time. Weiss (1973) suggested 40 years ago that we need to remain vigilant about the different and sometimes conflicting factors that influence actors in these sectors and limit the ability to apply evidence to policy and practice.

Each sector has its own drivers, aspirations and culture. Together, we live within a broader political universe, which has a different set of parameters again.

We can all cite examples of policy decisions made on scant evidence. Building the evidence with funding constraints is a challenge. And where there is evidence, it sometimes has little influence on policy decisions. There is an apparent disconnect which limits our ability to solve complex social problems. The reality is that research evidence is only one factor that may influence decisions.

In the past few years we have seen significant policy reform in disability services and in domestic and family violence across many Australian jurisdictions. In these fields, after a very long time, a tipping point was reached and the gates seemed to swing open. These examples are rare.

The challenge for us is, “How can we dial up the value of existing and emerging research evidence in order to achieve better policy and practice outcomes-at scale-and within shorter time frames?”

Here are some questions for consideration:

1. Are we focusing too much on the evaluation of individual programs and target groups at the expense of building capability for scaling up evidence-informed practice and broader system reform?

As noted by Weiss (1973), one problem is that: "We mount limited-focus programs to cope with broad-gauge problems" (p. 105).

Often funding is raised as a barrier, but there is value in using evidence of what works in shaping existing investments to build the scaffolding needed for better results.

We need a broad-based or universal system that can proportionately target those needing extra help. The service system needs to be interdisciplinary (integrated across health, education and social services), innovative (using flexible modes of delivery including new technologies), and designed according to the needs of kids and families, not the requirements of professionals or funders.

2. Do we need an integrated Family Policy Framework for Australia?

We currently have a fragmented patchwork of services and policies. It’s often a case of “let a thousand flowers bloom”. We have no overarching roadmap to guide the investment of research dollars in a coherent knowledge-building fashion.

For example, recent policy discussion on child care is disconnected from paid parental leave, and from early childhood and family services for parents and children. These and other elements are logically connected and could be part of an integrated families policy framework.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s ([OECD], 2011) Future of Families to 2030 report noted that the challenges for all countries “will be to design and introduce a robust, sustainable framework of policies capable of withstanding the pressures, and adapting to the changes that lie ahead” (p. 47).

The OECD (2016) is currently pulling together knowledge from health, education and social policy in order to build a child wellbeing framework—in what they describe as a “comprehensive strategic approach that cuts across the different areas determining child wellbeing” (p. 3). For example, Germany is promoting equal partnerships in families and a report called Dare to Share looks at the benefits of reducing gender inequality in families through integrated policies cutting across sectors including taxation and employment.

3. Where are the opportunities for innovation? What are the game-changers, the opportunities for breakthrough transformation in families policy and practice?

4. How can we do more with what we have already?

Existing knowledge can be used to build a long-term road map for reform. For example, harnessing existing investments in health, education and social services and building service integration at a local community level can help us to achieve impacts on later life employment, health and wellbeing.

Linking existing separate national plans in domestic violence and child protection, and creating outcomes frameworks across Commonwealth and states/territories would also help to build on existing strengths.

5. What helps or hinders the uptake of evidence by policy-makers?

A systematic review by Oliver, Innvar, Lorenc, Woodman, and Thomas (2014) found that what helps is improved relationships, skills and collaboration, and timely access to relevant, reliable and clear research findings.
Can we find ways of achieving better inter-professional collaboration? How can we ensure that research evidence is policy relevant and policy ready?

Can we improve the timelines for communicating research findings to our colleagues in the policy and practice sectors—especially given the short political cycles?
It’s great to see, at an international level, a growing dialogue about “what is evidence?” and how we can use it to make sound social policy decisions. A recent paper on evidence-informed decision-making and service delivery (Moore, 2016) synthesises this literature.

Typically expenditure in our field is considered a burden on the economy rather than an investment in our shared prosperity. If those working in family research, policy and practice can forge effective collaborations for solving problems and getting evidence into action on the ground, we may see better results. When we can collaborate to communicate the science—it’s a compelling voice.

This issue

The content in this special edition of Family Matters deals with some of most complex family and systemic issues in the contemporary social landscape. The family law system is a particular focus in the 40th anniversary year of the establishment of the Family Court of Australia. In addition to providing summaries of some aspects of the Institute’s Evaluation of the 2012 family violence amendments, the edition takes consideration of two specific issues—screening and assessment for family violence and the question of child representation in family law—further, through the inclusion of two externally contributed articles by Andrew Bickerdike and Helen Cleak (screening and assessment) and Kylie Beckhouse (child representation).

An article on elder abuse highlights significant demographic and human rights reasons for policy and research consideration in this under-examined area. Other articles deal with the implications of donor conception. Sonia Allan canvasses recent legislative developments in relation to the rights of donor-conceived children to information about their biological origins while Fiona Kelly provides an empirical examination of the experiences of single women who choose to form families by donor conception and to make contact with their children’s donors, and the implications of this for family law in practice. Each of the topics covered in this issue will remain significantly worthy of attention in the coming decades.


  • Moore, T. (2016). Towards a model of evidence-informed decision making and service delivery (Working paper No. 5). Melbourne: Centre for Community Child Health, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute.
  • Oliver, K., Innvar, S., Lorenc, T., Woodman, J., & Thomas, J. (2014). A systematic review of barriers to and facilitators of the use of evidence by policymakers. BMC Health Services Research, 14(2). doi: 10.1186/1472-6963-14-2.
  • Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2011). The future of families to 2030: Projections, policy challenges and policy options. A synthesis report. Paris: OECD International Futures Programme.
  • OECD. (2016). Enhancing child well-being to promote inclusive growth. Paris: Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, OECD.
  • Weiss, C. H. (1973, reprinted 1993). Where politics and evaluation research meet. Evaluation Practice, 14(1), 93–106.


Executive Editors: Rae Kaspiew & Rachel Carson

Editorial panel: Rae Kaspiew, Rachel Carson, Daryl Higgins and Elly Robinson

Editor: Katharine Day